|Ward at a state institution circa 1960|
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, there were no special education classes in our public schools. People with disabilities were, for the most part, invisible. I remember one student in my elementary who had had polio and walked with leg braces and crutches. I remember one student in junior high who was blind and had a guide dog, but I don't know what special services he may have had. I only remember seeing three people with developmental disabilities when I was growing up. There were a brother and sister who could frequently be seen walking to Oakland Park to go fishing at the small lake. (I later worked with the sister when she was transitioning out of a state school.) The other person with developmental disabilities I was aware of was a girl who went through high school with us. I suppose her parents must have insisted that she be in school; she went to regular classes and the only thing she could do was write a few letters of her name on a piece of paper and turn it in. I don't think I ever heard her speak.
Where were all those kids and adults with developmental disabilities? I occasionally heard adults talking in hushed voices about someone who had a son or daughter "with the mind of a 2 year old." But these people were well-hidden. At that time, most parents were advised by their family doctors to place their delayed children in state institutions, and since there were almost no services in the community, most parents felt they had no choice but to follow that advice.
In 1974, fresh out of college with a degree in history and no marketable skills, in the midst of a recession, I got a job as an attendant at the Denton State School. With my vast experience of having seen all of three people in my life with developmental delay, I jumped in with both feet. I loved the kids in my charge, about 15 boys, ages 6-13. I taught them self-help skills, sang songs to them, played with them. I knew their little idiosyncrasies and what would make them laugh. Back then, state institutions were very, well, institutional. All the residents of the dorm slept in one large room with several rows of metal beds. The day room was bare except for hard benches along the walls, with a TV on a bracket up high on one wall. The bathroom was a large communal bathroom, with a row of toilets, a row of sinks, a raised tub, and a shower. The kids whose parents still came to visit them wore clothes their parents provided. The others wore clothes that were sewn by prisoners in state prisons; the outfits bore a striking resemblance to prison uniforms, in kids' sizes. I sometimes bought regular clothes for some of those kids, and my dear mother sewed many lovely dresses for the girls on the neighboring dorm. As much as the other staff and I tried, it was still an institution.
Because of this experience, I am deeply affected when I see folks with developmental disabilities out and about in our communities today. When I see them out eating or shopping with their families, watch them play basketball or run track, see them pursuing their interests like art or dancing, see them working at the grocery store, my heart soars! It is so moving to me, to think what a fundamental change has occurred in my lifetime.