AuthorErvin, Mike

When I was growing up in Chicago, most of the kids in my neighborhood either walked a few blocks to the local public school, John H. Kinzie Elementary, or to one of the nearby Catholic schools. But a big yellow school bus would arrive to take my sister and me to Walter S. Christopher Elementary, a Chicago public school for kids with disabilities. It was a round trip of about twelve miles.

That was because my sister and I were in wheelchairs. It was the 1960s, and public and parochial schools were allowed to turn us away simply for that reason. There were no laws to stop them. Kinzie wasn't wheelchair accessible anyway. There were stairs on the entrances and I sincerely doubt it had wheelchair-accessible bathroom stalls or anything like that. Such schools were not meant for kids like us.

No, Christopher was the school for disabled kids. Many of our classmates were bussed in from neighborhoods much more far-flung than ours. And these weren't just kids in wheelchairs. There was a Black girl who walked and talked just fine, but she had no nose. It looked as though she had a homemade prosthetic that was vaguely shaped like a nose and maybe was made of clay. It was several shades darker than her skin tone and literally glued onto her face. It would sometimes fall off when she did something physically active, like jump rope. She'd pick up her nose and run off to the office of the school nurse to get it glued back on.

There was another Black boy whose face was scarred and distorted by a fire. Another kid had rotten teeth. He just had a few grayish-brown spikes in his mouth that looked like tiny stalagmites and stalactites. But it sure didn't seem like there was anything else disabled about him.

All of these kids could easily get into and around a neighborhood school like Kinzie, but still they were turned away.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. It seems that in my grade school days, the unwritten definition of disability being applied by school districts was a physical or mental imperfection that makes others feel uncomfortable.

We were segregated away because we were freaks.

During my school days, the only public high school for disabled kids was Jesse Spalding. Most kids who graduated from Christopher or one of the few other public schools for disabled kids would be bussed there. My local high school, John F. Kennedy, was as...

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