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When OTs Wore White Shoes

Mainstreaming Students Needing Special Education Services

Published February 28, 2014 10:14 AM by Debra Karplus
I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't remember ever seeing a person in a wheelchair until I moved into my college dormitory in the fall of 1970. Apparently, this girl lived on the first floor of our tall building. (In an ironic twist of fate our paths crossed, twenty five years later, and we've since become good friends.) No one in my world, in my family or in my neighborhood, had a disability, at least none that I could observe.

I had attended large high school in the 1960s, in an upscale suburban area, and even though there were over twenty-five hundred students there, nobody appeared to have a disability. I'd never really wondered about that at the time, because truly, I had no clue that people with disabilities even existed.  Sure I, as a sixth grade student in 1962, saw the award-winning film about blind and deaf Helen Keller, The Miracle Worker. I loved the movie and every other Patty Duke performance, but I didn't make any connection to her disability.

So, there's a bit of irony that I ended up becoming an occupational therapist. Recently, I wondered just where people with disabilities "were hidden." I thought maybe they were like some of today's students receiving special education services in self-contained classrooms. But those didn't really exist when I was in school.

It turns out that from the 1920s to the 1970s special schools existed to house and train these students.  Thinking back, I recall that that there was a place called Hadley School for the Blind, that wasn't too far from where I grew up. I discovered that it was founded in 1920 and it still exists today. I know that Jacksonville. Illinois has a school for students who are visually impaired and another school for those with hearing impairment.  t's probably more than a strange coincidence that these two special schools ended up in the same small city.

Important legislation for people with disabilities was passed in the 1970s, just after I finished high school. The Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) was monumental in making more services available to people with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act of Inclusion in 1973 and specifically Section 504 was the foundation for Individualized Education Program (IEP) and 504 Plans which are the legally binding documents that outline problems, goals and specific plans for school children with special needs that we still rely on today.

Mainstreaming children who have special needs and including them in general education is a win-win situation for all involved. Students receiving the special services benefit educationally, physically, and emotionally by working side-by-side in a classroom. And children not receiving the services have the benefit of learning about similarities and differences, and about disability. A person with a disability is not viewed as an anomaly as they were back in the 1960s, (and earlier), when I was growing up.  How lucky all of us are to have children and grandchildren in schools with inclusion.

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