America Before the Spec. Ed. Law

8 06 2014

Ever wonder what it was like for multi-handicapped children before IDEA (the special education law) was passed? You’d be shocked to learn how some disabled individuals lived. Here’s my account of what I observed.


In 1976 I headed to a new state to teach my first set of students. My teaching assignment was in a residential school for the blind. All the students had several handicapping conditions in addition to their blindness.

My supervisor stopped by my classroom.

“One of your students, Dan, lives in an institution where he receives minimal custodial care. He’s lived there all eighteen years of his life. He’s never attended school before. It’s uncertain whether or not he can hear. All we know is that he’s legally blind. I’d like you to assess whether or not Dan could be educated here. Your goal would be to determine if we should accept him for the three short years he’d be in our school. Let me know what supplies you’ll need for your classroom. Welcome to our team.”

He smiled and walked out.

I had just two weeks to evaluate Dan. With a brain as empty as my classroom, void of ideas, I turned to God.

Oh Father, I need Your direction.  Help me know how to determine what’s best for Dan.

As soon as I finished my quick SOS to God, I snapped out of my shock. God instantly helped me realize my need to gather more information. So, I went to the school office.

“Could I please see Dan’s records?”

“He’s in the custody of the state,” the secretary matter-of-factly replied. “Since he hasn’t been officially admitted to our school, we have no records in the office. Sorry.”

Undeterred, I drove to Dan’s institution to find out more about him. I was unprepared for what I saw.

“I’m here to see Dan’s records. I’ll be his teacher for our summer program.”

“We can’t show you his records,” the lady behind the desk informed me.

How can I begin to work with Dan without knowing anything about him?

Once again, my confidence was ripped out from under me.

Please Father, help me figure out how to get information. 

Again, God gave me an idea.

“Would it be possible for me to see Dan’s room?”

“Wait here. I’ll get someone to give you a tour,” she replied.

While being escorted to his room, I passed scenes which were difficult to comprehend. Each scene more shocking than the next. Room after room of blank walls containing barely any furniture. Rooms filled with children of varying ages lying around on cold floors, barely clothed. Every one severely handicapped. I could see it on their faces, in their distorted bodies. Eyes which weren’t blind had vacant looks. Blank stares. Like they had given up on life.

There was no evidence of any activities. No toys. No TV. Not even any adult interacting with the residents. No one there to guide them to interact with each other.

Could it be there is no structure to their day? 

No wonder many of them were occupied in self-stimulating activities such as rocking and masturbating. No one noticed. No one was there to care.

We passed by something that loosely resembled a cafeteria. The furniture consisted of long tables lined with benches. Residents were eating with their hands. Off each other’s plates. Or not eating at all. Finally, I spotted some staff. They were serving food and cleaning up. Without talking to the residents. Not even making eye contact.

How can children be warehoused like objects? Aren’t there laws preventing such negligence?

Such a naive thought. I actually thought passing a law would change people’s hearts. As if compassion could be mandated.

We arrived at a room that looked like a hospital emergency ward. Rows of cribs lined two long walls. My escort stopped at one crib.

“This is where Dan sleeps,” she said.

“Why is the rope net over the bed?”

“Because he tries to climb out.”

“Where are his clothes?” I asked.

The escort walked me over to a wall of open shelves full of folded clothes.  “No one has their own clothes.  This is where we get clothes for the residents.”

I tried to make some sense of what I was seeing.

Is she saying that these children have no belongings of their own? These children with crippled bodies, limited intelligence, some without sight, actually live like this? Day in and day out with no structure, stimulation, or attention? No identity?

“What can you tell me about Dan?”

“He likes Coke,” was all she could tell me about a person who had lived there for eighteen years. “Someone once showed him these picture cards. You may have them.”

Still not quite understanding the situation I asked, “Won’t you need them here?”

“No one will use them here. Take them,” she replied with no hint of compassion in her voice.

How can a person, working with disabled individuals, have such a cold uncaring demeanor?

Although I wasn’t successful in getting Dan’s records, I learned more than I wanted to know about his living conditions. Before meeting him, all I knew about him was that he liked Coke and that someone once showed him some picture cards. Then came the day I met him.

On the first day of the summer program, I waited outside to greet Dan. A bus drove up. It had the name of the custodial institution on the side.

“This is Dan,” the driver stated as he helped the boy off the bus.

Dan’s appearance shocked me. He had the stature of a first grader. This eighteen-year-old boy stood approximately three feet tall. It appeared as if he weighed only about 50 pounds. His gaunt face had a sheet-white complexion – the picture of a failure-to-thrive child. Like someone who had lived in a closet all his life.  The vacant look in his eyes brought back visions of the blank stares I saw at the institution. Stares which said, “I’ve given up on life.”

Dan rocked constantly. His continual moaning sounded eerie. Like the sorrowful cry of his soul. He was nonverbal and wore diapers.

The reality of my situation hit me. This person’s future is in my hands…MY hands!

Why did my supervisor ask ME to make such an important decision? I have no idea where to begin. No clue what to do. This is scary.

Father, help me know what to do with this boy. He’s so involved. I feel so ill-equipped. None of my college courses prepared me for anything like this.

God removed my anxieties. He replaced those feelings of inadequacy with assurances of His faithfulness. Resting in Him melted all my fears. I could trust Him for guidance.

My first ‘lesson’ with Dan consisted of taking him to a Coke machine. I handed him a quarter and didn’t know if he knew what to do with it. Would he try to eat the coin? He inserted the quarter into the machine and pushed a button to get his Coke.

The, I showed him the pile of picture cards (each with a word on it). Not knowing if he could even hear me, I asked him to find the ‘apple’ card. He held the cards close to his eyes. And quickly flipped through the cards looking only at the words written on each corner. Then handed me the correct card. What horror!!! There was a mind that could learn locked in his body. And he could hear. I thought of him being aware of his surroundings while living in that awful institution. It was almost too much to bear.

My next objective was to find out if he could be toilet trained. Those lessons had to take place in the bathroom all day long. Dan’s days consisted of going to meals and toilet training. As he sat on the toilet I talked to him with respect, not knowing if he could understand what I was saying.

“Dan, you’re eighteen years old. You don’t need to wear these diapers any more. This is where you’re supposed to go instead of in that diaper. I’m so sorry you’ve had to live in that institution. I’m glad someone—”

Dan tried to get off the toilet.  I blocked him and gently placed him back on the seat.

“Sit here, Dan. Stay on the toilet.”

“I’m glad someone showed you those cards. I know you can hear me.  You heard me tell you to find the ‘apple’ card—”

The bathroom door opened. I stopped talking. Dan kept moaning. An adult walked into the bathroom with a student. She acknowledged me with a smile. Acted as if nothing seemed odd. As if teachers conducted toilet training with students all the time. The moaning didn’t seem unusual to her at all.

She ushered the student into one of the stalls. It became apparent many of the students in that multi-handicapped unit needed assistance for very basic self-care.

When they left, I resumed my one-way conversation. With Dan’s perpetual melancholy accompaniment in the background. It sounded like a monotonous low pitched, two-tone droning. Slowly and sorrowfully repeated An endless song of torment.

“You’ll like it here. You could have Coke. You can meet other students. We will teach you how to communicate. There are really helpful and loving teachers here—”

“No, don’t get off; stay here so you can do what you need to do right in the toilet.”

I knew Dan could hear me, but had no idea  if he understood my words. Certain he could sense my feelings toward him, I continued.

“Can you tell how much I care about you?—”

Suddenly a victory. For the first time in his life, Dan used a toilet correctly.

“Good job, Dan! That’s the way. See, that wasn’t too hard. I know this is all new to you. Do you believe me when I say things will get better for you? Don’t give up. I’m not going to give up on you.”

I prayed for him and sang songs of God’s love. After two days, I told my aide how to do the toilet training (with love and respect).

Dan never wore a diaper again.

I prepared him for his hearing evaluation by using play audiology. He learned to respond to a sound by shaking a toy. The audiologist’s evaluation revealed his hearing was within normal limits. Providing a  formal confirmation of what God already helped me ascertain.

God graciously guided me to a decision. With His help, I had gathered important information. Which led me to the recommendation for the school to accept Dan.

Upon admission, a psychometric evaluation (similar to an IQ test) provided an assessment of Dan’s cognitive abilities. A speech teacher taught him how to use picture cards to communicate. After six months, a psychologist reassessed his cognitive abilities. Dan had progressed two years in that short time. His teacher wanted to adopt him.

The Creator of life knew the potential that was locked inside a handicapped body. He helped me discover more about that person.


Nowadays children like Dan receive free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Augmentative and alternative communication devices enable them to communicate. Accommodations and support systems improve the quality of their lives.

In 2005 Robert J. Wedl reported on the changing face of education. His publication, entitled ‘RESPONSE TO INTERVENTION – An alternative to traditional eligibility criteria for students with disabilities’, included a summary of the history of special education in our country. Read ‘History of How Public Policy has

Defined Learning Disabilities’ in that report:

For more information on IDEA, check out the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs’ (OSEP’s) IDEA website: