I have been disabled all my life. Fortunately for me I had the opportunity to attend public school and be included in mainstream classes. This is no small fete considering that I am a child of the sixties when handicapped students were not allowed to attend public school. How could this happen?
I was born in Iowa. I have an older sister, a younger sister and a younger brother, Brad” that was also disabled. It was difficult for my brother and me to maneuver in the snow and the cold weather wasn’t great for anyone with Muscular Dystrophy. My parents took a big risk leaving family, friends and work behind to move to Arizona for my brother and I.
In the summer of 1962, my parents bought a John F. Long home on the Westside of Phoenix, Arizona a half of a block away from Holiday Park Elementary School in the Cartwright District. I was six years old and my mom decided to sign me up to attend school. In the sixties disabled children did NOT attend public school. My disability wasn’t obvious at such a young age. I could walk at the time but if I fell, one could easily see that I was disabled by the way I got up and the time it took me to get up. On the first day of school my mom looked me in the eye and said, “Watch your step! Don’t fall! And, Cathy, keep your mouth shut and don’t make waves!” (Even at the age of six, I was being warned to be quiet and don’t make waves. Those that know me will laugh at this and wonder why I didn’t follow that mantra all my life.) I happily attended Holiday Park Elementary School. My parents were part of the local Muscular Dystrophy Association and Brad and I were cute kids at that young age and were the “Arizona State Poster Children” for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. At many of the Muscular Dystrophy functions other parents were surprised that I attended public school and when my mother was asked how she got me in public school her answer was simple, “I went and registered her.”
The next year it was time for Brad to go to school. Brad was already in a wheelchair so there was no hiding the fact that he was disabled. My mom took my brother with her when she went to register him for school and this time she got a different reaction. She was directed to speak with the principal and he said he was sorry but Brad wouldn’t be able to attend school but he could give her a list of place where he could attend school. My mom said to the principal, “Why can’t he attend this school? His sister goes to this school and she has the same disability as Brad! Their problem is they can’t walk NOT that they can’t think!” The principal was dumbfounded and Brad attended Holiday Elementary School. At that moment in time, The principal, Robert Smith, my mom, Brad and I had set a precedent for the Cartwright School District – Disabled children were allowed to attend public school. Throughout my public school career I saw many disabled children attending school.
Why was this amazing? Public Law 94-142 was not passed until 1974, which was the year I graduated from high school. Public Law 94-142 gave ALL children the access to a public education. This was twelve years after I started attending public school.
I truly believe that if I hadn’t received a public education I would have never been able to attend or graduate from college. In the sixties, “education” for the disabled consisted of teaching life skills. Even in 1974 I had to fight to be allowed to become a teacher. The Arizona State University College of Education didn’t want me to waste my time and resources on a teaching degree that “the powers that be” felt would never be used because no one would hire disabled teachers. But I had spent years in the Cartwright District public school system influenced by so many amazing teachers and also by this time I had dropped the part of my mother’s daily mantra, “Cathy, keep your mouth shut and don’t make waves.” I was a tsunami and I fought to attend the College of Education, and besides The Arizona State University College of Education didn’t know I had an ace in the hole – the Cartwright School District.
Public Law 94-142 also stated that public buildings had to be handicapped accessible but there was a five-year time period that owners could take to make their buildings accessible. Many places started slow by painting a wheelchair on a parking space or taking the door off of a toilet stall to make it “accessible”. I spent most of my college years and part of my teaching career not drinking any liquids during the day and rushing home, at the end of the day, to go to the bathroom. In 1978, I graduated from Arizona State University with a teaching degree that many thought was useless.
In 1978 there was a push to “hire the handicapped” but at that time disabled teachers were not part of the “push”. I went to the only place I knew that would accept me for who I was, the Cartwright School District. I figured if the Cartwright School District didn’t need a law to do what was right for children, then the district probably didn’t need a law to hire a disabled teacher.
In August of 1978 I started my forty-year teaching career. In the early 80s I was one of three teachers that implemented an inclusion plan where all special education students stayed in the mainstream class for the entire day. The Cartwright School District was doing inclusion long before the word was invented. The Cartwright District has always been open to research-based ideas that improve student achievement and has been the forerunner of doing what is the best for students without expecting any acknowledgement.
I am always amazed at the cycles in the education system. The Arizona State Department is cycling back to FULL INCLUSION. There are grants that teach and support schools on full inclusion. The school that I am teaching at now, Borman, is in the second year of the grant. I have always pushed to have my students with special needs stay in my class as much as possible. I believe they have a right to be exposed to the grade level curriculum. Many ask, “But what about the students that can’t handle the regular classroom?” The other day as I was walking across campus I ran into a student from another school I had taught in the past. When I first met him the word “autistic” was NOT part of our daily educational vocabulary as it is today. I know this young man will never understand the middle school curriculum nor will he pass the state required tests. But being a part of the mainstream class is teaching him and his classmates life lessons. He is learning how to function in crowds. He is also learning how to avoid unkind individuals, unfortunately. I hope his classmates are learning to be more accepting of others. My head is not completely in the clouds. I know that there are students with special needs that will need a self-contained classroom and even one-on-one aids. But I also know that if one doesn’t set one’s goals beyond their reach then one will never reach the stars.
I am one of the lucky ones. If not for my full-inclusive public education, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I thank God for leading my parents to the right place, with the right open-minded leader at the wrong time in educational history. I guess I am again a “poster child” but this time for full inclusion. As I get ready to retire, no really I am, I’m not kidding this time, I realize how lucky I was to have a mother that wouldn’t take no for an answer and to have been a product of the Cartwright School District.
I like school. When will there be full-inclusion for dogs? I know there are a lot of faces to lick and hearts to melt.
The Flip Side
Do they have lizards at school? You know how much I love chasing lizards, oh, and bunnies and gophers and squirrels? Did some say squirrel? Is there a class in chasing animals?
I'm thinking school is not the place for us! What is school?