Impact Feature Issue on Stories of Advocacy, Stories of Change from People with Disabilities, Their Families, and Allies (1988-2013)

Realizing the Vision (Part 1, 1991)

In 1991, Impact: Feature Issue on Inclusive Education (Preschool-1st Grade) stated, “Early childhood special education is at a crossroads.” That crossroads was the movement to educate children with and without disabilities together in the same classrooms and programs. One example of successful inclusion shared in that Impact issue was this story of Anne Ellis, written by her parents Gary Ellis and Diane Kozlak.

“At school, Annie’s friends greet her with her own ‘Hi’ signal, vertical palm facing forward. When it’s her turn in a computer game, classmates place her hand on the switch, then make her wait while they take their turns. If she slides to one side of her chair, they push her back up with a casual shove. Her 24 classmates enjoy being her helper and one, Caroline Becker, names Annie as one of her three favorite friends.” (St. Paul Pioneer Press, “Retarded Girl Finds Her Place in Real World,” by Ann Baker, October 10, 1990).

These successes of integrative education programming were recounted in a recent newspaper article about our daughter’s school program. Annie was the first student with severe mental and physical disabilities to be fully included in her neighborhood kindergarten and first grade class in the Mounds View School District. Such successes are powerful reinforcement for the hard work and commitment of school staff, students, and parents – essential ingredients for an effective integrated education program.

We have two daughters attending the Turtle Lake Elementary School: Marlo, age 10, and Anne, age 6. They are great support for one another and, like all kids, have their own special needs for friends and acceptance. However, because Anne was born with developmental disabilities she has had to overcome many barriers to her full participation in school life.

During the first three years of her life Anne received therapy and other programming services through the St. Paul and North Suburban D.A.C. After she turned three, new legislation went into effect that required local school districts to provide programming for children with disabilities. Our school district contracted with Special District 916 to provide services to Anne at a segregated site. Although we were pleased with the programming that Anne was receiving, we found the segregated site lacking in many ways. Since none of the children in Anne’s classroom talked or were ambulatory, the only verbal communication and role models for her were her teachers.

Her life was without playmates or friends. Since her pre-school experience was outside of the neighborhood setting, she did not have opportunities to make friends with other children in her neighborhood. We decided we wanted more for Anne when she entered kindergarten and elementary school.

This decision began a process that spanned over one year to convince Mounds View School District officials to provide services for Anne in her neighborhood school. The process of expressing our vision for Anne resulted in a very positive team approach to beginning an inclusive education project in our district.

Anne began kindergarten and then first grade by riding to school on the same bus as her classmates and joining them full time in the regular classroom. Our pain of watching the isolation of Anne’s life changed to the excitement of seeing her surrounded by other children who were drawn to her uniqueness and enjoyed her friendship.

How is the integrated learning process working out in the classroom? It is benefitting all the children. For instance, since Anne uses sign language to communicate there has been great interest from her classmates to not only learn her signs, but sign language in general. Students often come up to Anne and show her the new signs they have learned. Students also have become actively involved in adapting Anne’s environment to fit her needs. One day in art Anne was having difficulty gluing paper together. A classmate came up with the idea of using a paintbrush to apply the glue. In addition, Anne’s classmates have really learned the art of patience as well as tolerance. They not only will wait for Anne to respond rather than answer for her, but appear more tolerant to the differences of other peers in the class. Very seldom are negative things said about other people in the class.

Along with the interaction with her peers at school, we have been pleasantly surprised to find that Anne has new friendships outside of school. She has been invited to the birthday parties of her friends, boys and girls alike. When we attend school or community functions, children come over to say hello to Anne and introduce her to their families.

We have been amazed to see the many changes taking place in Anne. She has become more interested in communicating her needs, both verbally and with sign language. She is also more motivated to be upright and learn to walk. We believe this increased motivation is due largely to the role models of her peers and her desire to interact with them.

These experiences have certainly convinced us of the value and naturalness of integrated programming. It is a constant challenge to facilitate this learning process and we are thankful for the enthusiasm and dedication of the professionals who have been part of Anne’s team. We are also thankful for the openness of Anne’s classmates who accept her for her abilities. Most of all we are very proud of Anne who plays the key role in all of these efforts. Her sister Marlo wrote about Anne in a way that sums up all of our sentiments: “I am thankful for my sister. I think that if my sister was not handicapped, I wouldn’t be half the person I am. My parents have helped me learn more about disabilities. My sister gets into my stuff like any first grader would.”