By Jacquez Deloach, The University of West Alabama
The modern education system, without a doubt, has made long strides in a positive direction for the advocating, advancement, and inclusivity of students with physical, social, psychological, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities. However, with increased awareness of the importance of mental health and the safety of neurodivergent students, understanding the trials and tribulations of the evolution of special education must be discussed and documented.
I sat down with my grandmother, Vickie Deloach, while her two-week-old grandson lie asleep on her chest, in my mother’s living room. Since she retired from the education system in 2000, taking care of her grandchildren has been her full-time job since the fall of 2001, when I was born. Our conversation touched on her experience as a special education teacher from the late 70s to the late 90s, to how society and children’s behavior changed during those twenty years.
For twenty years, Vickie taught and worked with special needs children (her term, which I use throughout this writing) with varying conditions at East Choctaw Elementary School outside Butler, Alabama. In current and modern school systems, most special needs children can be with the rest of the students. However, during her time as a teacher, all special needs students were kept in an isolated and self-contained classroom all day. The children placed in this classroom ranged from mild to more severe forms of social and behavior problems. She would occasionally have a teacher’s aide to assist students who would use the bathroom on themselves, but for the most part, she was responsible for tending and caring for all the students on her own. She recalled that the entire student body and even staff members would look at her and the students differently. Lunchroom staff would be scared of some students, and custodians would not clean her room. She mentioned the lack of understanding the staff had towards the special needs students.
When it came to learning, a standard curriculum was unusable. She had to individualize an educational program to cater to each student’s weaknesses and strengths. She used a task analysis technique, which moves from simple tasks to as advanced as possible. For example, she would have to start with “concrete” methods, such as counting physical objects to teach students math. From there, she would transition to “semi-concrete” methods like counting a picture of objects. Finally, she would introduce simplified abstract methods, such as counting in their heads.
She has plenty of stories to tell, ranging from funny to depressing. One unusual story was about a girl named Leatha, who seemingly possessed psychic abilities. She recalled that many other teachers would tell her about this student, but she did not believe it until she saw it. Somehow, Leatha could predict oddly specific incidents to local people, like when the school bus would break down. Whether extremely coincidental or maybe something more, Leatha is a student, Vickie will never forget. On a more somber but slightly wholesome note, she told me about a student named Glenn. Glenn was not born with a disability. However, his story is a little more tragic. Glenn had a twin sister named Lynn, but they had an accident in a pool the summer before the school year started. Unfortunately, Lynn did not survive, and she drowned, but Glenn survived with severe brain damage. Glenn was previously a straight-A student and now had to be assisted with walking and living in general. My grandmother told me that even though his life changed, he was a charming and obedient student that she would never forget.
I once read that a school culture is indicative of the culture of the surrounding community. When discussing the differences between how students acted in the late 70s to nearly the early 2000s, many societal changes took place. Vickie discussed how children were more obedient in the 70s because parents and grandparents were around more. Another odd difference, according to Vickie, was that in the 70s, you could not ask a student about their father when filling out forms. In fact, a teacher could have gotten in serious trouble if they asked about a father. It was heavily implied and enforced to only ask about a mother.
However, Vickie suggests by the early 90s, the mother’s authority was weakened. Students no longer feared their mother as much as the generations before them. She said society was shifting heavily towards less respect for authority. In addition, many parents had to work, which left their children to fend for themselves. She also noted that some parents were simply not equipped to raise children due to poverty or drugs, or some other social challenge. Therefore, their children had to fend for themselves.
Though children were becoming more unmangeable, they still had some respect for authority, Vickie described them as having more spirit. Children were more optimistic for the future than modern children. My grandmother suggests that children of today are exposed to so much more that they live a different reality. The rise of the internet revealed so many things that parents used to try to shield their children. She said children and young adults went from optimistic to pessimistic and hopeless, because they know too much about the world at such a young age.
As someone from the generation she describes as feeling hopeless, it is correct that so many of my peers simply have no motivation or faith for the future. Though one could argue that people have always felt hopeless, mental health was not as discussed or documented, and no one can deny that modern-day students have become open with their frustrations and insecurities about what is next. It will be interesting to see how the next generation will handle the upbringing of the current generation when it comes to positive and healthy outlooks for the future.
My eyes and ears were open wide throughout this conversation. There was so much information to be gathered in such a short amount of time, but I am glad I could sit down with her. A lot has changed since 1978, when she started teaching, but there is always more work to be done. Special needs children in impoverished areas still lack the resources to learn and survive in the classroom. There is still a lot of stigma and misinformation about students with wide-ranging disabilities that needs to be dismantled. On a positive note, we have come a long way in improving the lives of special needs students and adults. In the last 50 years, special needs students have gone from something many tried to hide to the forefront of inclusivity, safety, and equality for all.