Not So Special Ed

January 13, 2013

I was a “special Eddy” right from the very beginning of my primary education. Having both visual and hearing impairments, I was given an early intervention specialist who specialized in students with visual impairment. So began my journey learning Braille and some basic sign language. By second grade it had become apparent that my hearing was dropping rapidly while my vision was stable (and, to this day, still is.) I was referred to a specialist that focused on students with hearing impairment while still learning Braille with the other specialist. The hearing specialist taught me both manual (sign language) and oral (speaking verbally and lipreading) methods of communication. This is called the “comprehensive deaf education” module. I was giving adaptive listening equipment for classes until I could no longer hear well enough to make use of it. By then I was introduced to a woman who would type out the lectures for each class.

Looking back, she, my original typist, was a wonderful woman, though, her skills as a typist were not of professional grade (professional live captioners have made a world of difference for me in college.) I often missed many things in class, such as a teacher cracking a joke. This had the effect of isolating me further from my peers. Though her efforts tore down some of the communication barriers I faced in class, I was deeply ashamed of her. Her presence was an embarrassment to me and served as further proof to my peers that I was “different,” isolating me further and further into a cold, dark and lonely cavern of depression and self-hate.

I should have been provided with a professional captioner, one who proved qualified through professional certification. Instead I was given a random woman pulled off the streets who followed me to each class. The price paid to save a few bucks on an accommodation I was legally entitled to under the Americans with Disabilities Act was my self-esteem. I felt like one of my mentally handicapped peers that required an adult to sit with them through class to prevent them from acting out. By God, if they were going to treat me like a retard (and I apologize for using that term) then I would act like one. And act out I did. I put on a show so marvelous and believable that I earned an all expense paid trip to the American Nutcase Awards where I was nominated for every psychological condition in the book, winning only one. First prize for my performance as Best Wild Child was another all expense paid trip, this one to meet the famed Therapist and have my hand print paved into the Traumatized Child Walk of Fame.

I would end up going through several typists after my return from, some better than others, as well as several deaf education specialists before my two years at Oregon School for the Deaf and after my return to public school. My blind education specialist was the same from kindergarten to my senior year of high school, though, I didn’t see much of her after returning from OSD.

Special education classes added even more fuel to the fire of my disdain for the system. It saddens me to admit that what the special education system is often made out to be and what it actually is are worlds apart. Whether or not it was ever intended to give students with handicaps an equal opportunity in education by accommodating weaknesses and encouraging growth in areas where the student shows strength, that is not the reality of it. Special education is a warehouse where dreams come to be broken and smashed into oblivion. In special education, students are not challenged intellectually, rather they are given subpar educational opportunities, allowing them to pass with the bare minimum in remedial classes. Early on, students are taught through the actions of their teachers to settle. Mediocre is perfectly acceptable in this environment. Just getting through is the goal of each individual education plan. The concept of higher education is rarely spoken of beyond trade school or apprenticeships. And where do you think budget cuts are made first? You guessed it, special education programs and schools for the deaf and the blind. That is essentially the government saying, and please pardon my language, “Fuck you!” Through their actions and government spending they are telling children and adolescents with handicaps that our education is not a priority to them. They are saying that we should be seen and not heard. A man without an education is a slave to his government and society’s expectations for him.

And when one’s own government doesn’t believe in you enough to invest in your education; when one’s own school board of directors do not believe in you enough to provide and pay for adequate accommodations as the law requires them to; when one’s own teachers do not believe in you enough to challenge you and push you to be all that you can be, then tell me, dear readers, why should you believe in yourself?

I was grossly under prepared to take on college. I failed the same basic math course more times than I care to admit. For the last three years, I’ve wandered in an out of classes feeling inadequate, less than human even, because I was not given an equal opportunity to succeed. Because I was given less than my peers in terms of a proper primary education, I viewed myself as less than my peers in terms of a human being. The idea that I might actually be an intelligent and capable human being was foreign to me until very recently. My last term was a turning point in which I aced every last one of my courses. And this term? Thirteen credit hours–four courses, including an introductory ballroom dance class where I am once again defying expectations–and three separate volunteer jobs; supervising activities at a center for children with developmental delays who remind me of my own childhood, tutoring at the very school for the deaf where I was once a student, and advocating for equal opportunities for people with handicaps in public forums, conferences and meetings with other like minded individuals with handicaps. Once I do transfer to a four year college, I’ll be declaring a philosophy major and a biology minor as a pre-medical student.

The little boy who was all set up to fail would go on to become not only a physician, but a mentor and a role model for which other students with handicaps could aspire to be like.

Wouldn’t that make for a better ending to this story?

Born in 1898, Dr. Helen Taussig, a late deafened physician scientist, pioneered the medical specialty of pediatric cardiology with her role in the development of the surgical technique known as the Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt. Dr. Taussig, being profoundly deaf, employed lip reading in order to communicate with her patients and used only her fingers to assess heart rhythms. In addition to being deaf, Dr. Taussig was dyslexic and had extraordinary difficulty reading. Despite her handicaps, Dr. Taussig earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley before pursuing graduate studies at Harvard School of Medicine and Boston University. Dr. Taussig completed her postgraduate research in cardiology at Johns Hopkins where she also played vital roles in the first successful heart surgery ever performed and the surgical palliation of Tetrology of Fallot (Blue Baby Syndrome) with her involvement in the development of the surgical technique, Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt. Dr. Taussig became deaf midway through her postgraduate work. In 1944, Dr. Helen B. Taussig, along with Drs. Alfred Blalock and Vivien Thomas, performed the first Blalock-Thomas-Taussig shunt on an Eleven month old infant suffering from Blue Baby Syndrome, successfully saving the infant’s life.

In 1954, Dr. Taussig was awarded the prestigious Lasker Award for her involvement in the groundbreaking Blue Baby operation. By 1959, Dr. Taussig became one of the first women and the first deaf person to be granted a full professorship at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Taussig became both the first woman president and the first deaf president of the American Heart Association. The year prior to her election as president of the AHA in 1965, Dr. Taussig was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In 2005, Johns Hopkins University named one of its four colleges in her honor. The Helen B. Taussig Children’s Pediatric Cardiac Center was also named in her honor by Johns Hopkins years prior.

In 1963, Dr. Taussig retired from her work in the medical profession at the age of sixty-four before passing away thirteen years later on May 20th, 1986 at the age of eighty-seven. Dr. Taussig died on impact in an automotive collision only days before what would have been her eighty-eighth birthday.

Dr. Taussig’s portrait remains hung on the walls of Johns Hopkins University to this day and her legacy and lifework continues to inspire many.

The first acoustic neuroma (brain tumor of the ear) developed in my left ear by age five. The tumor, the radiation treatment and the surgeries that followed left not even a decibel of hearing behind. By age fourteen, another acoustic neuroma, which we had been aware of, had developed. It was the last surgery of that ear that drained most of the hearing. This was much harder on my parents who wanted to deny my prognosis. Their son became “deaf” that year.

Growing up HoH (hard of hearing) was filled with many challenges. My social skills were below that of my peers due to my inability to fully understand their speech. Socializing and making friends was a roadblock along my journey. It got to the point that by eighth grade, in all of my loneliness, I began to feel nothingness and my mind was never too far from suicide.

Since first grade, I had always been provided with a deaf educational specialist throughout my time in the public school system. As a child I spent a couple hours each week with my specialist learning to speech read and sign. By high school, I only saw my specialist for an hour a week just for emotional support. Someone who understood the trials a deaf child had faced and a Deaf man would overcome.

In addition to speech reading and sign language, my specialists were my advocates for all things relating deafness, from adaptive listening equipment in the classroom to my first hearing aid. From a live captioner who sat in class to type out the teacher’s speech to my journey into deaf school, my specialists were always one step behind me, allowing me to lead the way.

I had visited Oregon School for the Deaf once before and met with the principal of the middle school one time before the tour. My mother had a negative perspective throughout the entire tour, convinced deaf school had nothing I’d benefit from. One day after school in eighth grade, my mother took me by the hand into the kitchen. Her eyes were red and puffy, she had been crying. She sat me down on the kitchen chair, got on her knees and, through tears, did the most selfless thing she had ever done for me. She told me that I was deaf, saying it more for herself than for me. She told me there was a place where I wouldn’t have to wake up everyday to the challenges that I thought would always be my life. She reassured me (or herself) that she wasn’t sending me away. That she loved me and believed in me.

I believe I became “Deaf” that year. I would soon learn to embrace it as not just a part of my life, but a central part of my identity. Someday I would even learn to seek motivation from it, becoming inspired by silence.

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