Tonight I watched the film on Netflix, Crip Camp. This was the history behind the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act. My memories were refreshed. I remembered the fervor with which I jumped into my career in special education. Meeting some of the heroes in this story at the Center for Independent Living in Berkeley in the early 70s was the impetus for my career decisions.
When I was in college I, like everyone else, searched for a destination for my life. A summer working with summer programming at a church in Watts, the year before the riots there, followed by a summer in Chicago, demonstrating with Martin Luther King turned me into an activist. I believed I was going to dedicate my life to bringing equality to all. I simply needed a minority group to identify with.
I spent two years with children in South Stockton, five miles away from the University of the Pacific. With the help of the local Methodist minister, I established a girls’ club for girls 9 to 13. We met weekly for arts and crafts, dancing and a few field trips. Their reaction to the Pacific Ocean was that someone had sure wasted a lot of laundry detergent. They were incredulous when the water tasted salty.
Another time I took them camping. They woke up in the morning with white fuzz clinging to their hair. Then they stuck logs into the smoldering campfire and when they became smoky, danced and sang. Several nerby camping groups packed up and left early.
I did a survey of other schools in the South Stockton. I recruited over thirty other students to run sports teams and homework help clubs. Then I went to Chicago. I was transformed by Dr. King. I could single-handedly change society. But Black Power looked askance at my skin color. I found a bowling league made up of children with physical limitations. I came away with the third lowest bowling score in the group! And I was laughing. Now here was a group I could relate to!
That summer I was the Girls’ Head Counselor at Camp Merry Heart, run by the March of Dimes in New Jersey. I loved the kids. Remembering back to my summer camp days, I helped organize swim meets and dances. I remember a lot of laughter and ribbing.
Before I could go further with my plans, I joined the Peace Corps for two years. When I returned, I enrolled in a program for a teaching credential for the Orthopedically Handicapped, and as it was referred to them, the Mentally Retarded. At the beginning I taught a number of children from nearby state institutions. I was horrified by their tales of neglect and non-education.
The summer after my first year of teaching I spent working with the House Republican Research Committee. My husband had a friend who ran the group. I spent that summer writing a comprehensive report about the needs of the physically handicapped. I met Federal workers who were injured vets, and together we spelled out the needs these people faced. In my spare time I worked to document the architectural barriers within the Federal Government. I listed everything from stairways and curbs blocking access to the Supreme Court to the height of the urinals there.
I came back to Berkeley, taught for a year, and shared my reports and data with the Center for Independent Living, where Judy Heumann was organizing “Crips” and would eventually work to eliminate these barriers.
At this point, I moved away from Berkeley and settled into my teaching career. For four years, as my husband pursued a teaching position at Indiana University, I taught a feisty group of students who lived in North-Western reaches of Appalachia. The school where they were bused was situated in the middle of Indiana University. The school educated an elite group of students whose parents taught at IU. The needs and abilities of my students contrasted greatly with the students around them.
This was before the bill mandating special education, so I was not burdened by Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs). I was free to set my own curriculum. Since there were few resources my students could use at University Middle School, I took my kids out into Bloomington. We did math lessons in the local drug store. We navigated the somewhat limited bus system and went roller skating across town. We even took a camping trip, then returned home and wrote a three-page poem which we got published in a local poetry journal.
My students moved into high school, and many of them dropped out. I moved on, when my husband headed to another teaching position in another state. As IEP’s took over, my ability to bring children into the community, to teach them what I felt were survival skills was lost. I had to teach to standards which would bring my students as close as possible to the measurable skills leading to high school diplomas, or I was forced to teach these students “certificate skills” that did nothing further to prepare them for living independently as adults. As much as possible I supplemented fraction lessons with cooking projects, incorporated newspaper ads into math lessons. My poetry lessons were supplanted by memorizing the names and dates of historic Virginia leaders so we could memorize enough facts to pass the fourth grade Virginia standardized history test.
Instead of learning to read newspapers and cookbooks, I taught students how to pass standardized reading tests by skimming and scanning for answers way above their reading comprehension levels. And I helped them to memorize a basic form which, when done right, created a passable essay for the standardized writing test.
Although bureaucracies and the resulting standards inhibited my teaching, over and over I found ways to work around these. I can now look back with pride at what I accomplished in over forty years of teaching in ten or twelve different programs. And, the fervor I found in Center for Independent Living in Berkeley certainly inspired me throughout my career. And now, too!
"With all the beauty surrounding me here above the Verde Valley, how could I not create more beauty?"