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Where we have been.

Where have we been ... and where are we going? Twenty years ago we dreamed that our daughter Debbie, who has profound hearing impairments, would be able to enter our local elementary school and have the same educational opportunities which were available to our two olders sons. In 1974, special education legislation made that dream a reality. Now in her final year of college, Debbie, 23, will shortly join the work force as a successful young adult who will add her economic and social contribution to our society.

In September 1974, Debbie entered kindergarten at our local elementary school in Newton, Mass., as the only child with hearing impairments in the school. Who would have thought that our public education system would be so willing to adapt its program to ensure a succesful mainstream experience? There were no prescriptions or formulas. Rather, a commitment to excellence and to meeting every child's needs were the underlying rationale. Administrators, teachers and support staff met with my husband and me and our special education consultants, from Emerson College in Boston, Mass., in an effort to design the best program for Debbie and her classmates.

The district hired an itinerant teacher of the deaf who provided direct language therapy to Debbie as well as professional development for the school staff on an on-going basis. Every year thereafter, teachers committed to attending inservice workshops on the nature of hearing impairments and language development. Curriculum and materials were reviewed for clarity and content. Where appropriate, supplemental materials were provided. Physical characteristics of the classrooms were sometimes adapted, often with federal monies.

Teachers were excited and revitalized by Debbie's addition to the regular classroom. A climate existed in the public schools which rewarded the regular classroom teacher's taking on the challenge of integrating a child with disabilities. The community saw that children with disabilities could be an asset in our schools since many of the changes improved the educational program for all the children.

We learned to confer with other parents and professionals, and in many cases with Debbie, on solutions to the educational problems confronting us. We became more adept at finding the answers together rather than relying on the "experts." Remember the days of "handing your child over to the educators," particularly those of us who had to send our children to private special education schools?

Debbie made friends among her classmates, participating in social activities and sports. As she grew older and more independent, we purchased an additional telecommunications device for deaf people (TDD) to loan to her classmates on a rotating basis so she could communicate with them directly. It was no longer appropriate for a family member to make plans for her. She wanted to do that herself. Many of her peers and their parents came to accept Debbie as "one of the kids."

Exposure to people with diverse needs and learning styles has had a positive impact on our educational system and our country. Attitudes hace changed for the better. People with disabilities attend school, work and are visible everywhere. No longer are they hidden from view.

As I look back over the last 20 years, in which I have been a school board member, a special assistant to a superintendent of schools and a parent of three students who were educated in the public schools, I can unequivocally state that special education has had a profound and positive effect on public education in America. It has influenced and improved the way in which we evaluate and teach all children.

It is true that special education is expensive. Even more expensive is no education, a minimal education or segregated education. Years ago, people with disabilities were welfare recipients or dependent on their families for support. They led sheltered lives. Today, our daughter is only one example of a young woman who has successfully learned to live a productive, independent life. She has spend the last two summers working for major New York City corporations. Both companies hired Debbie as their first employee with hearing impairments and both were delighted with her skills, attitude and work ethic. Cleary the time, money and effort spent on educating her will contribute to the economic growth of this country.

Fortunately, the special education legislation has guaranteed a level of quality all these years. But do not be lulled into false security. It is about to disappear. Lack of federal and state leadership on the issue of funding for education has forced an unprecedented decimation of public education. The issue should not be a reduction of special education services, but the assurance of a comparable level of commitment to regular education for every child. We cannot expect regular classroom teachers to work collectively with special educators if the resources are not available to both.

We cannot just be advocates for special education anymore; special education and regular education have become too closely intertwined. As parents of children with disabilities, we need to expand our advocacy to include all the aspects of public education. Usually our first concern is our own child, then it expands to special education in general. Ultimately, it must now grow to include all aspects of public schools if we truly wish to educate and integrate our children into this diverse society.

It is a myth to state "money will not improve public education." Of course it will! Increased funding will allow our schools to maintain a level of balance and support for all students and teachers--those in regular education and those in special education. Vouchers and choice plans do not level the playing fields. Private schools do not reflect our democratic ideals. Those elected officials who give lip service to the notion of investment in the education or our youth, while stripping our public schools of financial resources, need to hear from all of us. Investment in our current and future work force in the form of an appropriate level of support for all public education will help us out of our current economic quagmire. Our ability to compete in world markets with current and emerging nations will depend on our ability to educate all children in America.

I wish I could say that 20 years of pushing and working within American education has entitled me to retire. But I still feel a very compelling need to continue. The succesful education of our daughter has led me to the realization that we could reach every child in America -- poor, rich, bilingual, with or without disabilities, minority, majority, North, South, East or West. With a national resolve, we can do this.

Public education is the foundation of our democracy and it is in crisis. Let's not let the gains of the past 20 years evaporate for our children with disabilities as well as all the children of America. Education has been one of our most important industries. Let's insist that it regain its place near the top of our country's priorities.
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Title Annotation:Hall of Fame; mainstreaming in education
Author:Fleishman, Sandra
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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