(For the past two weeks I have been writing about my own experiences as a young education reporter. Here’s another segment.)
In my mind’s eye, I can still picture the vast, dimly-lit room. About half the size of a football field, it was filled with men, women and children strapped into wheelchairs or otherwise restrained. If I close my eyes, I can hear the wailing and moaning, rising and falling in a cacophony of animal sounds that I never would have imagined humans were capable of making.
This ‘snake pit’ was in New Mexico’s main facility for handicapped children and adults, the Las Lunas Hospital and Training School. How I ended up there in 1979 with my tape recorder requires some explanation.
When I arrived in Washington in 1974, handicapped  children were the center of attention. The Congress had become aware of our failure to educate some children simply because of their mental and physical differences. Out of the estimated eight million handicapped children, one million were receiving no formal education at all; some were kept at home, while others, abandoned by their families, were doomed to spend their lives in institutions like the one in New Mexico. Still more handicapped children went to special schools, which often provided little more than custodial care, or were isolated in regular schools.
Legislation was working its way through House and Senate committees. In the White House, Gerald Ford (our new President after Richard Nixon’s resignation) was hoping it would not pass, because, as a Republican, he felt that education was a state responsibility.
Despite Ford’s objections, Public Law 94-142, “The Education of All Handicapped Children Act,” passed easily in 1975 . It told states they must provide a ‘free and appropriate public education’ for these children  in what was described as ‘the least restrictive environment.’ Schools must prepare an IEP, an individualized education plan, for every handicapped child, with the involvement of parents, and these IEPs would become the road map that schools would be accountable for following.
Federal money for this new effort was ‘authorized’ but not provided in PL 94-142, because actually setting aside the money is the responsibility of another part of Congress, its appropriations committees. That would turn out to be a huge problem, and PL 94-142 would become a poster child for what are called ‘unfunded mandates,’ when Washington tells states what to do but doesn’t pay for doing it.
Knowing that a veto would be overridden, President Ford reluctantly signed the bill into law. He showed his displeasure by banning photographers from the official signing. No pictures exist. No ceremonial pens handed out either, apparently.
PL 94-142 did not become effective immediately but gave the states until September 1, 1978, to be in compliance.
Curious about the states that seemed to be ignoring PL 94-142, in the spring of 1979 I went to New Mexico, one of the holdouts. My 8-year-old son, Josh, was with me, because I had told my children that they could travel with me as soon as they could read (which turned out to be a great incentive). We stayed for a couple of nights in Albuquerque with the Monzano family. Their Down’s Syndrome son David, 15, and my 8-year-old got along well because they were about the same mental age. I believe that experience helped Josh develop into the open-minded man he is today.
The next day was a different story. As soon as I heard the dim sounds of keening and wailing, I knew that what was ahead would not be appropriate for an 8-year-old. I told Josh that he should get out his book, and I left him in the waiting room.
Inside was that unimaginable snake pit. My guide led me toward the distant corner where the ‘retarded’ children were kept. Along the way she stopped to point out an adult in a wheelchair, his arms and legs restrained. His name was Charlie, and he was, she guessed, in his mid- to late-twenties. Charlie’s neck was puffed up like two softballs, one on each side, the grotesque growths expanding and contracting as he breathed.
My guide explained: “If you watch him, he’s pulling air in through his mouth into a cavity that he’s probably created over the years, between his carotid arteries and his skin…It’s very self-stimulatory, and this has evolved over the years. This fellow’s been institutionalized ever since he was a young infant, and I guess in earlier days he was considered to have no potential for anything at all. People just left him to his own devices, and he began to self-stimulate.”
I asked her how children ended up in such a horrible place. Sometimes, she told me, babies and infants were left on the doorstep during the night, abandoned by parents who couldn’t cope. When she saw my skeptical look, she told me about the Christmas cards. The institution sent holiday cards to the parents or guardians of all the residents every Christmas, and every year at least half of them came back marked ‘Addressee Moved, Left no Forwarding Address.’
In the children’s corner, she introduced me to Bill, a young man in a wheelchair. He was 21, a quadriplegic who could not speak, the result of cerebral palsy. But he could move his head, and he smiled as we were introduced. He was wearing a miner’s helmet with a lamp, and on the front of his wheelchair was a blackboard with common words like ‘feel,’ ‘need,’ ‘hungry,’ ‘love,’ and the pronouns in boxes. Around the edges of the blackboard were the letters of the alphabet, and in opposite corners at the top, the words ‘YES’ and ‘NO.’ On the bottom were the days of the week. Using his lamp to shine on words and letters, Bill could communicate with others.
Bill was clearly not mentally retarded, but he was in the state hospital that housed the mentally retarded. I asked her how this could have happened?
“Because Bill is so physically handicapped he could not–okay, there are certain tests that they run through these children or adults that, because he was handicapped, he couldn’t do certain testing. And so therefore they had diagnosed him at lower functioning.”
What she was saying, basically, is that almost everyone in the institution just assumed that physically disabled individuals were also mentally retarded and therefore just given minimal care, and no education to speak of. Bill got lucky, because one day an attendant thought she saw a light in his eyes, more than just a glimmer of intelligence, and so she and others improvised ways to teach him to read and compose messages. He had learned rapidly, she told me, and now he could carry on a conversation.
“He’s very aware of everything. In fact, he’s pretty–he can be pretty conniving. He’s got us all jumping. I think that, if Bill would have been given the educational opportunities, he could be at a very, very high level.”
Then I interviewed Bill, saying aloud into the tape recorder what he signaled with his head lamp. He told me that would rather be on television than just plain old radio, smiling as he wrote those words. Here’s the end of that interview:
“What do you do on Sundays?”
“Church. You go to church on Sundays?”
“Do you believe in God”
“How many years have you been going to church?”
“Two years. Got it. Thank you, Bill.”
GOODBYE. I LOVE YOU.
Of course, I could not keep from crying. Was I shedding tears of joy because this young man’s story demonstrated that the human spirit is unquenchable? Or tears of sorrow that his life, and so many other young lives, have been wasted because society was unable to see beyond physical and mental differences?
In my view, Public Law 94-142 stands as a monument to what is best in our society, our impulse to improve the lives of the least fortunate among us. We’ve messed it up, of course, by failing to help regular classroom teachers, by rushing into ‘mainstreaming,’ by being too quick to label some kids–especially the poor and minorities, and by allowing some lawyers to exploit the system to get certain students placed in expensive private schools at public expense.
Despite the errors and omissions, however, PL 94-142 and its successors have improved the lives of millions of special needs children and, at the same time, broadened the horizons of children (like my son) fortunate to be ‘temporarily able-bodied,’ as the advocates used to say.
- 1. Back in 1975, the word ‘handicapped’ was not politically incorrect. Or perhaps those pushing for the legislation, like the Council for Exceptional Children, did not want to waste any energy fighting about words. Later on ‘handicapped’ would be replaced by words and phrases like ‘special needs,’ ‘disabilities,’ and ‘exceptionalities.’↵
- 2. The vote in the Senate was 83-10. The House tally apparently was not recorded, but the margin was overwhelming and veto-proof. Here’s the US Department of Education’s page about the law: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers/idea35/history/index_pg10.html↵
- 3. The law specified that no more than 12% of a student population could be labeled handicapped, a provision added because some feared schools would label excessively just to get the federal dollars.↵