AuthorErvin, Mike

The state-operated boarding school from which I obtained my high school diploma was called the Illinois Children's Hospital-School.

If that name makes you want to laugh, please do. Don't be afraid. Laughter is the reaction I'm after. Your laughter is therapeutic and affirming for me. It makes me feel like real progress is being made.

When people laugh at my cripple segregation experience, it means they get the joke. That makes me feel vindicated. Because that's how I've always looked at it. The idea that disabled kids had to be educated in a deeply segregated environment under the constant surveillance of a skilled medical professional was indeed a dark joke.

But when I lived at the Illinois Children's Hospital-School in the early 1970s, few people on the outside got the joke. At the time, there was nothing absurd or oppressive about that name. A Children's Hospital-School was the kind of place fragile cripples needed to be. Nobody thought twice about it.

I also hope you laugh when you hear the word "special" used to sugar-coat cripple segregation. That's a big joke, too. Segregated cripple schools like the Illinois Children's Hospital-School were often referred to as "special" schools where "special" children received "special" treatment. Doesn't that sound great? Who wouldn't want to be special? To be special is to be among the chosen ones. If you say you went to a special school, it sounds so oooh la la--like you went to a Harvard prep school or something.

But life in our segregated environments was an absurd contradiction where the word "special" meant the opposite of what it actually means. For us, to be special was to be forsaken. We went to these special schools because we had no choice. Other schools wouldn't accept us.

In the 1960s, my mother tried to get the public schools in our neighborhood to enroll me, but they said no. Kids like me belonged in special schools. There were no laws against that kind of discrimination at the time. The federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which established the rights (in theory) of disabled kids to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, was signed in 1975.

"Special" didn't mean greater than. It meant inferior to. So special treatment meant inferior treatment. If a place with a name like the Illinois Children's Hospital-School sounds like the complete antithesis of a Harvard prep school, that's because it was. Its name reflects...

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