My first experience with disabilities was Room 2 at Los Molinos Elementary School in Hacienda Heights, California. Mrs. Lu, who in my memory did not appear to have any teacher aids or assistants, taught this class of approximately twelve children with various disabilities. That was “mainstreaming” in the 1970s. The kids in her class (ages 6 to 12 or so) had their own lunch table in the cafeteria; no one from another class dared to sit there for fear of being ridiculed by the rest of the school. The Room 2 kids all played together at recess. Occasionally one of them (I remember Stacy, a tall girl with long brown hair and large, thick glasses) would try to join in our games and would immediately be excluded, sometimes even chased away. It was taboo to even talk to “them.”
The rest of us were told that they were “mentally retarded.” That was all. Autism was not mentioned, nor Down’s Syndrome. No one explained what “retarded” really meant, and that not all of those children were retarded. No one tried to teach the rest of us to integrate them, to accept them, to think of them as kids. No teacher suggested that they had feelings like the rest of us. So we recoiled from them. I didn’t feel right about it, but at age eight I didn’t have the strength to stand up to other kids and say, “There’s nothing wrong with them! They want to have friends too!” I certainly couldn’t bring myself to taunt them with shouts of “Retard!” like many of my classmates did, but neither could I bring myself to stop the taunting. I just walked on by, pretending it didn’t concern me.
And now I have a child with autism. I remember when he was seven, hearing someone shout “Retard!” at him in my own front yard. I dashed out the front door and yelled at the boy who said it, “Don’t you dare call my son that! You need to leave now!” I wish I could have slapped that boy across the face. He must have come over because he wanted to use Nigel’s wagon. Or else he was just bored. I didn’t know what to make of it. Too many thoughts rushed through my mind. I wondered how many times Nigel had been called “retard” that I hadn’t heard, like at school.
Room 2 still stands out in my memory. I wonder about the school district’s protocol back then. Why the segregation? Was it fear? Laziness? I am glad that their ideas about students with disabilities have changed, but they have much farther to go for mainstreaming to be successful. Teach acceptance. Teach empathy. Is that so hard? Kids these days are taught about internet safety, recycling, birth control, and plenty of other non-academic subjects. Surely teaching them how to have respect for others, especially those who have disabilities, is at least as important. If we’re going to have more and more autistic kids mainstreamed into the public school system, they need to have the “free and appropriate education” that has been promised to them. Being excluded and called a retard is in no way appropriate. It’s time to retire the Room 2 mentality and make some real progress.