Special education: Who decides which cases are hopeless?

November 02, 1995|By Mike Lane

ADATUM IN this newspaper set special educators' and parents' teeth on edge: America spends $125,000 to educate a single multi-handicapped student who will never hold a paid job. Further statistics and graphs showed how special-education spending has ballooned tremendously since 1965.

But hold on there. People with multiple disabilities are finding jobs. An auto-parts company in the area routinely employs people with physical and mental disabilities. Some are even members of unions.

You should see what computers fitted with wands for quadriplegics or operated by blowing into a mouthpiece are doing for people with disabilities. There are painters who paint by holding the brush in their teeth or their toes.

As for special-education costs, it's all relative. Special-education spending was minuscule in 1965. The word ''handicap'' still suggested its root words, ''cap in hand,'' or begging. The poster boy for the disabled in 1972 was the poor, miserable, disabled boy in the movie ''Deliverance.''

That's as much attention and education as we paid to people with disabilities. Hide them away and hope they learn to play the banjo. Or we marveled at ''idiot savants'' (as later depicted in Dustin Hoffman's ''Rain Man'') who could do mathematical or musical tricks.

Public Law 94-142, the Education of the Handicapped Act, changed all that. Passed in 1975, it mandated that all children have a right to educational opportunity, however difficult, embarrassing, inconvenient or costly it might be for the rest of us. Let's hope it's not Newtered back to the age of ''Deliverance.''

The bonus for children

The act places burdens on teachers and school systems, but it provides a nice bonus for children sharing classrooms with other children who have special needs. They learn that being different is just part of the fabric of life. In 1965 that was unimaginable for parents of children with disabilities.

We no longer, as in 1965, refer to children with special needs as ''retarded'' or ''handicapped,'' but as children (or people) with disabilities. This is not mere political correctness but puts the emphasis where it should be, on real people and real children.

The fact is our lives have been enriched by people with disabilities: Toulouse Lautrec (dwarfism), Stevie Wonder (blind), Jim Abbott (one-armed baseball pitcher), Bob Dole (wounded in World War II), Yitzhak Perlman (polio), Hans Christian Andersen (dyslexia), FDR (polio), Blind Lemon Jefferson (blind), Niels Bohr (atomic physicist and 1922 Nobel Prize winner with dyslexia), Stephen Hawking (Lou Gehrig's disease), Helen Keller (blind and deaf), Beethoven (deaf), Thurber (blind), da Vinci (dyslexia), Chris Burke (television actor with Down's syndrome), Ray Charles (blind).

The longest field goal

The longest field goal in pro football, 63 yards, was kicked by Tom Dempsey, who had a club foot. The Irish authors Chris Nolan and Christy Brown were so physically crippled by cerebral palsy that they were believed to be mentally retarded and ineducable. Daniel Day Lewis won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Brown in ''My Left Foot,'' a film that will affirm forever the need to try to educate the seemingly lost disabled.

Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1865-1923) was a dwarf whose head rested on a barrel of a body. He had a humped back and stood on crippled legs. But he managed to hold a job: As an electrical engineer for General Electric, he developed alternating current, on which our modern-day electrical systems operate. (Edison & Son were still stuck on direct current.) Some job.

No longer Superman

The world of physical and mental disability is difficult to understand for those of us who are not disabled. We know that Christopher Reeve is no longer Superman but we cannot imagine what he can yet do. Even he doesn't know that until he has been re-educated in his ''new'' body. He can barely talk, but that's still him in that body and he needs our help.

Children with disabilities are the last minority whose education rights are still questioned. Will those of us who are not disabled and not family casually leave their care to the uncaring? Who can absolutely know that a disabled person's education will be pointless, that a child has nothing to contribute to society?

One school headmaster thought he knew. The student before him appeared to be dyslexic and was not fluent in language by the age of 9. The boy's father asked the headmaster what profession might be suitable for his son. The teacher replied, ''It doesn't matter; he'll never make a success of anything.'' The student's name was Albert Einstein.

Mike Lane is an editorial cartoonist for The Sun and cannot get beyond Chapter 6 in Stephen Hawking's ''A Brief History Of Time.''

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