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:


Different or Special

30 05 2014


Perhaps your life has been touched by an individual with a disability. Since I began my career in special education over 36 yrs. ago, many children with disabilities have enriched my life. They taught me many lessons. By living their lives with joyful resilience. Some of them left this earth too soon. Like Shane.

I’m grateful Shane’s life intersected mine. I knew that young man as the worship leader in our Sunday school class for children with special needs. Shane’s learning disability didn’t inhibit his singing. With a heart full of praise, he sang with enthusiasm to God. His uninhibited, joyful, and loud singing lifted everyone’s heart to heaven.

Shane’s sister wrote the following tribute for his memorial service. Through her words, Shane’s testimony lives on. His example continues to lift hearts toward heaven. That’s my prayer for you.


In Celebration of Shane McGonagle

A Testimony Written by His Sister, Michelle

As a child, I enjoyed hearing people say, ‘Shane is different’ and I can say he was.  As siblings, we would fight and of course I was older and bigger so I would win.  Shane was different.   He never would hold a grudge and he would always forgive me and love me always.

As a teenager, I would hear people say, ‘Shane is different’ and I can say he was.  Most teenagers can’t imagine living a life with epilepsy.  They would think life wasn’t fair to them and that everything was difficult.  Shane was different.  He could go to school each and every day with a smile – ready to face the day…never sorry for what his life was like.

As a young adult, I would hear people say, ‘Shane is different’ and I can say he was.  When other young adults were moving on in their careers and getting married, Shane was different.  Shane had surrendered his life to the Lord.  Shane realized that only God could provide him with peace and happiness.

As an adult, I would hear people say, ‘Shane is different’ and I can say he was.  When most adults went to family functions or picnics, they would sit around and chat about their aches and pains, jobs and children.  Not Shane.  He would gather all the children together and tell them about how much he loved Jesus.  He would teach them and sing every song that he had ever sung since he was a little boy.  The kids loved him unlike any other adult there.  Shane was different.

When most people would go to church, listen to the service, and sneak out the side door to get home as quickly as possible, not Shane…He would get excited about the opportunities to serve the Lord by singing with the special needs class each Sunday.  Shane was different.

When most people would try to get a few extra hours of sleep on Saturday, Shane would get up, get dressed, and grab his stack of sports tracts.   He would head for the street to tell people that Jesus loved them.

Why was Shane so different?  Shane was different because he understood exactly what God wanted all of us to understand.  Shane understood that God loved him and gave His only Son to die for him.  Shane realized that life was not about what was here on earth.  Shane realized what mattered the most – and that was eternity.  Shane was different.  He understood what life was all about.

He had a burden to see people come to know the Lord, and he wanted to be the one to tell them.  ‘Shane is different’ I would hear people say.  When he was a little boy, I think Shane would look at Phil and me and he wanted to be just like us.  That’s what little brothers do.  But the truth is…as I stand here today missing Shane so much already…I want to be more like him.  Like Shane, I want to be different too.

Understanding Attention

4 01 2014

“He has trouble paying attention.” That’s what every teacher told us throughout our son’s school career. As if we didn’t notice.

Diagnosed at age 5 with ADHD, Chris demonstrated classic signs of ADHD: impulsivity, distractibility, disorganization…  Back then, 28 yrs. ago, most people didn’t know about ADHD.  However, I was very familiar with the disorder. My training and experience teaching students in special education provided insight.

You can just imagine how it frustrated me when educators reported the obvious about Chris. Especially in such vague terms. “He has trouble paying attention.” That didn’t tell me anything concrete or helpful.

When I became a regular classroom teacher, I vowed to do a better job reporting information to parents of kids with ADHD. They deserved to know what I observed, how much redirection was required to keep the student on task, etc.

So I developed a rubric. You may find it useful. When you click on the link below, you’ll find a chart. Start with the first column and pinpoint precisely where a student falls. Write the date in the box that best describes the student’s behavior. Do the same for all the other columns.

After several months, repeat the process to update the information.

Attention Rubric

Is it OK to emphasize learning styles?

17 01 2012

Focusing on learning styles has become controversial. Learning is much more complex than simply discovering the best method of teaching for a student.

Many factors impact academic performance. When a student is struggling to succeed, there are many things to consider. All of the following elements contribute to school success.

  • The teaching methods (There are countless categories of learning styles.)
  • The environment (physical factors and the atmosphere)
  • The student (gender, age, culture, health, development, self-awareness, motivation, pace, etc.)
  • The teacher (training, experience, etc.)
  • The process of learning (constructing knowledge based on the context, reflection and closure – fitting it into related information previously learned)
  • The system (support services, resources, etc.)
  • The parent (ability to support child, own past experiences, current life stressors)
  • The content (information to be learned) – Types of knowledge:
  1. Procedural (knowing how), declarative (knowing what), connective (knowing who – knowledge of and by the connections that exist in the world), experiential
  2. Separate (learned through explicit instruction) vs. connective (learned through empathy)

The secret to success in school can’t be as simple as a single learning style. It would be wrong to say that each person learns from one specific method of teaching. Learning is enhanced when information is presented in different ways.

Teaching methods, learning environment, the student, the teacher, the content, the system, and the parent all affect academic performance.


We admit everyone has strengths and needs. Some things are easy to learn; some are harder.

Specific strategies can help tremendously.

Math comes easy for me. It’s harder for me to memorize important dates in history. I’ve found that if I draw a picture of an important event and include the date, I’m more likely to remember the date. This realization that I learn difficult things using illustrations has helped me throughout school.

I once taught a student who was legally blind and mildly mentally retarded. He was a gifted musician. Learning to spell correctly was hard for him. I challenged him to make a rap out of his weekly spelling words. His spelling tests were very entertaining. His performance soared!

So, should we abandon all emphasis on learning styles? Certainly not.

Helping a struggling learner is detective work. It’s a systematic search for what works.

It’s important to keep in mind all factors: teaching methods, learning environment, the student, the teacher, the content, the system, and the parent.

One component of optimal differentiated instruction for a particular student may be a teaching method which has promoted progress or success.

Students can develop strategies which are in accordance with their strengths and preferred learning styles. Those strategies become their tool box for learning. Educators can certainly identify accommodations which would yield improvements for a student.

Visit my ‘Equipping the Saints’ website to find a learning styles ppt. I developed.

Click on the Learning Styles ppt. for more information.