The change is no more apparent than when you look at the disability community. My kids, all of whom have Individualized Education Programs (or, IEP's) and varying degrees of need are all welcomed, challenged and integrated into life at their school's. It is still challenging, there is still work to be done, but, at least in our little corner of the world northwest of Chicago, they seem to be getting it (mostly) right.
I imagine with horror, how life would be for my Charles, who has Down syndrome, if he were in junior high when I was. He is a popular, thriving seventh grader alongside his tall and dark haired younger brother. He probably would not have been in the early 80's.
I remember sitting in the cafeteria of my middle school in New Jersey. My homeroom's table was at the top right corner of the room farthest from the lunch line. The table at the bottom left was usually empty. Every once in awhile, however, there would be seated at it five or six children with disabilities. I remember that at least two had Down syndrome, but that is all I really remember about their looks. What I definitely remember is the feeling of revulsion I had when they walked in or out. They moved funny. Their gates were choppy and strange. They were so different.
They sat with their heads bowed, talking and gesturing quietly to each other. I realize now that they kept their heads down so as not to see the ugly looks they were receiving from just about everyone else in that room.
What a sad and lonely feeling that must have been.
Imagine being in a large group of people all talking loudly and too quickly in a dialect you have a hard time understanding and they are all looking at you. None of them look friendly or happy to have you there. You feel like you don't belong there AT ALL.
They were like carnival freaks, except no one was clamoring to see them. No one was hawking about their strange abilities. They were just there.
I cry now at this memory. I cry because I wasn't sensitive enough at the time to realize that it was wrong to shun those kids; KIDS! Kids just like me. I cry because I wonder how it must have felt to them to sit in that room. I cry because they had to deal with any of that at all. I want to shake that dirty-blond haired girl and say "THEY HAVE EVERY RIGHT TO BE HERE! THE SAME AS YOU DO!" I want to shake the teacher's for not educating us in any way about those kids. They were never mentioned, never at recess, never in the hall; to this day I have no idea where their classroom was or if it was even in that school at all. Imagine, in a school of maybe 500 kids not knowing where an entire classroom full of kids was! It seems unfathomable today, but it was a fact for me in 1981.
It is exquisitely painful to think about this now. It breaks my heart into a million pieces thinking on how I could have made the days just a little bit better for those kids. I could have smiled. I could have stopped at their table and said hi. I could have asked their teacher where their classroom was. I didn't. I regret it to this day.
So, now I wonder who they were and where they are now. I wonder how many of them are still alive. I wonder what their lives were like outside of school. If they were truly cherished by someone, in hopes that it might have helped them get through those awful, awful days. I find myself wanting to reach out to them, still, today, hopefully better late than never, to say "I see you. I want to know you. I am sorry".