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There Was Nothing 'Special' About Our Special Education

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The two recent articles by Alan Vaglivelo brought back two sets of diametrically opposed memories.

First there were those of my school days in the 1950s at Monroe Elementary School. The second were those of my days as an elementary school teacher.

During my teaching days which ranged from 1973 to 2004 the field of special education evolved enormously. In my early years as a teacher there was of course a special education department at our school but compared to what is known today, it was quite limited.

The special ed teacher worked pretty much exclusively with children who were then referred to as  retarded. There were varying degrees of retardation, but they were all called the same thing.

Today the term has become a little more politically correct and it is now referred to as cognitive impairment or intellectual disability. 

There was little known about literacy or numeracy disabilities and even less about the range of behaviors now known as autism.

By the time I retired, things had changed dramatically. This was due to the amount of research and knowledge that has been gained over the years. To get a better understanding of the current state of special education I would suggest you read Dr. Vaglivelo’s blogs.

Now let's climb into our time machine and go back a little over 60 years to the year 1950 when I was in first grade.  

Monroe did not offer kindergarten at that time, much less early childhood screening for preschool age children. I along with my peers simply started first grade with relatively few skills. 

I remember my first grade teacher very well. She was a very sweet, nurturing lady. But the first thing she did was instruct me to stop writing, coloring and using scissors with my left hand. In school, she told me, we use our right hand.

It was down hill from there. Everything from totally illegible penmanship to mixed dominance to left-right progression confusion to difficulty reading.

By third grade much of these issues resolved themselves with the exception of my penmanship and the annoying tendency to confuse lower case b's and d's.

Was all of that because my teacher switched me from lefty to righty? I don't know, but I do know it didn't help and I further know that if we knew then what we know now, that would have never happened. By the way, I still bat and play golf left handed. But I'm lousy at both!

I knew other children with similar issues, but the only thing remotely resembling special education at that time was the 'special' class for  retarded children. Even then, some of the more serious cases went to residential schools like Southbury Training School.

There was no extended resources teacher, no speech/language pathologist, no occupational therapy specialist, no school psychologist, no social workers, no physical therapists, no language arts or math specialists — just the classroom teacher — and the principal if learning disabilities led to behavior issues.

Medications like Ritalin were unheard of. Children did not have Attention Deficit/Hyperactive disorder. They had poor behavior and they weren't trying hard enough. 

Children were not autistic. They were just weird — and easy targets for the local bullies.

Children did not have visual or auditory discrimination issues. They weren't listening and paying attention.

Now at this point you may be tempted to observe that in spite of all of that, we all turned out just fine, didn’t we? So what's all the fuss about?

Well the answer to that is there were a significant number of children who didn't turn out just fine. Among other things they grew up not ever reaching their full potential. That's why it's important to address these issues early on. 

I was very lucky. But my golf game still stinks!

Life in Monroe, small town America.

Those were the days.

Carl Strange September 17, 2011 at 01:39 PM
Thank you for reminding us of what the old days can look like without rose-colored glasses. Special Ed has certainly evolved, and the improvement I've seen the way students in the larger population view SE classmates in the past two decades of mainstreaming shows growth, too. I'm right-handed, but my older brother is left-handed. To his credit, he resisted the teachers who tried to get him to switch. His handwriting has always been terrible, but he became a physicist and has 35 electrical engineering patents under his belt. Of my five daughters, two are left-handed. So is President Obama--and John McCain. And Clinton, Dole, Bush elder, and Ross Perot. If anything, left-handedness seems to suggest ability rather than disability. So we know about left-handedness now. I wonder what we are doing to young people that we don't yet realize is harmful, what Don Rumsfeld called the "unknown unknowns." In another generation, i suppose we'll find out. All we can do is our honest best in the meantime.
Susan McGuinness Getzinger September 18, 2011 at 11:27 AM
Thanks for the perspective. Early intervention is key to individual success and helps dramatically to keep future costs down to the taxpayers. I always wanted to write with my left hand and thought ambidextrous kids were the coolest (and still do!).

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