Thirty-five years ago, legislation mandated that public schools had to provide a free, appropriate education for all children, including the disabled. One alum born legally blind shares his story as both a student and a teacher.
They didn't have to take him. When David Ticchi's parents approached school administrators at the West Bridgewater Elementary School about enrolling their six-year-old son, the administrators legally could have said no. It was 1951, and there were no laws on the books saying the town had to accept a blind child -- or any disabled child for that matter.
There was, of course, some resistance and concern. But his parents pushed, says Ticchi, Ed.M.'69, C.A.S.'71, Ed.D.'76, in part because the only other option was to send him to the Perkins School for the Blind, located almost 40 miles to the north, just outside of Boston.
"I would have had to board there, which my parents didn't want," says Ticchi, who was born legally blind with limited vision -- he could see some light and vague shapes. His parents wanted their son at home, plus he was another helping hand on their small farm.
Their pushing worked: Ticchi enrolled that fall in the town's four-room schoolhouse. At times, he admits, it was difficult. Recorded lessons were still in their infancy -- reading David Copperfield involved listening to 42 thick records, he says. He also didn't learn Braille, a language system of raised dots, until he was a teenager. (Someone had convinced his parents that it was passé, so he had to rely on teachers and other students to read to him during elementary and middle school.) Occasionally, kids would tease him. When he got older, he couldn't drive a car like the other students. At dances it was hard to get around.
But something important also happened: Ticchi's teachers set the academic bar as high for him as they did for every other student. He says that if he got three wrong on a test, he got three wrong. According to the National Association of Special Education Teachers, this was unusual. At the time, the few disabled students mainstreamed in public schools -- no matter what their disability, physical or learning -- were usually nudged toward manual work like bead stringing or weaving, not academics.
As a result, Ticchi got something from his public school that every child deserves: a great education.
It would be more than two decades before other disabled students would legally get the same chance.
Much of the credit goes to parents, at least initially. Around the time that Ticchi started school, a parents' rights movement was starting to build in America, writes Joseph Shapiro in No Pity, his book about disabilities and civil rights.
"As more children survived disability, more parents sought to keep them from being institutionalized," he writes. Parents started key advocacy groups like the United Cerebral Palsy Association in 1948 and the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 1950. Parents also began lobbying Congress, which created the Bureau of Education of the Handicapped in 1966. A few years later, the bureau started providing funds for the training of special education teachers.
Other factors contributed to the rise in rights for disabled students. By the late 1950s, for example, Denmark was integrating students with disabilities into the broader community. "This represented a significant shift in societal attitudes toward people with disabilities," says Stephen Luke, Ed.D.'03, director of the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. "The spirit of this approach soon resonated across Europe and the United States." Also critical, Luke says, was the passage of several landmark civil rights acts in the United States during the 1960s, which, while not specifically for the disabled, actually made it illegal to discriminate against certain groups.
And then two pieces of legislation forever changed education and disability rights in America. The first was a provision that was quietly tacked on to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 saying it was against the law for groups receiving federal funds to discriminate against anyone "solely by reason of . . . handicap." Known as Section 504, the wording in the provision "clearly was copied straight out of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ruled out discrimination in federal programs on the basis of race, color, or national origin," writes Shapiro in No Pity. Surprisingly, there were no hearings held on this provision and it received little fanfare -- at least at first.
"Members of Congress were either unaware of it or considered it 'little more than a platitude' for a sympathetic group,'" Shapiro writes, quoting sociologist Richard Scotch, who later studied the legislation. It didn't take long, however, for politicians to realize the significance of what had just happened, especially when the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) estimated that compliance with the provision would cost billions. When signing of the bill was delayed, protests erupted, including a sit-in at the regional HEW office in San Francisco that garnered national media coverage.
Then in 1975, a second bill called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), or Public Law 94-142, was enacted. Where Section 504 was broad, protecting postal workers and highway construction crews as well as students and teachers, EHS was the first federal law that explicitly stated that children with disabilities aged 5 to 21 were entitled to receive a free, appropriate education. (Eleven years later, an amendment expanded the legislation to cover children aged 0 to 5.)
Professor Judith Singer, in a 1985 piece in Education Week marking the bill's 10th anniversary, called it "a handicapped children's Bill of Rights." Shapiro says it was the disability movement's "equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education." And Luke says it was this act (later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Act, or IDEA) that made it clear that all students mattered.
"This legislation really stands out as the game-changer for children with disabilities," he says. "Prior to 1975, children with disabilities were commonly excluded from public schools." Many states even had laws prohibiting children with disabilities from public schools, he says. "With the passage of EHA, public schools were now mandated to provide a 'free and appropriate public education' with the ultimate goal of preparing students for positive postsecondary outcomes such as employment or postsecondary education."
Several provisions in the law, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, were key, says Luke. One states that education has to be provided in the "least restrictive environment" -- that is, in regular classrooms, as much as possible. It was no longer enough for a school to isolate disabled students in special ed classes or pay to have a disabled child educated elsewhere.
Another provision also hugely expanded parental rights. Parents got to see their children's records, for example, and became equal partners with the school staff in creating a written blueprint for their child called an Individualized Education Program, commonly referred to as an I
EP. Included in the IEP would be an extensive evaluation and a set of measurable goals. Due process also allowed parents the right to appeal any decision.
Advocates hailed the legislation, despite potential price tag concerns. According to a 2000 policy paper by the Brookings Institution, early supporters believed the number of students requiring extensive, and expensive, special needs services would be low and that "the financial impact on regular education would be slight." The law originally said the federal government would pay schools' excess special education costs at 40 percent of the national average per pupil. The fiscal year 2011 budget called for funding at 17 percent.
Back in 1975, the country was in a recession and the fiscally conservative President Gerald Ford made his ambivalence about the bill clear during the signing ceremony.
"Unfortunately, this bill promises more than the federal government can deliver, and its good intentions could be thwarted by the many unwise provisions it contains," Ford said. "Even the strongest supporters of this measure know as well as I that they are falsely raising the expectations of the groups affected by claiming authorization levels which are excessive and unrealistic."
After the law was enacted, an estimated 1 million children who previously had not been in school were enrolled.
By this time, David Ticchi was a grown man. He knew about the legislation and supported it, of course: "To be able to advocate for yourself, you have to have a knowing intellect," he says. "I've tried to pay attention."
But he also knew from experience that getting legislation passed was one thing: The bigger hurdle was changing attitudes. As Harvard Law School professor Martha Field said at a disabilities panel discussion held at the Ed School in the spring, "Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that once the law is passed, it's all right."
Growing up, Ticchi never really thought of himself as different. "I'm a person and blindness is a characteristic," he says. "We're all made up of certain characteristics, but it's not all of who I am." And his parents expected as much from him as they did his older sister, who is not blind.
"Growing up on the farm was a real blessing for me," Ticchi says. "Parents have expectations for any kid -- keep your room neat, set the table. Not only did I have to do those things, but I was also expected to contribute on the farm. Every day we had to feed the chickens, shovel manure, collect the eggs. It made me feel good about myself that I was contributing, but also that I was competent."
The farm also served as his first teacher.
"We had a thousand chickens and we counted the eggs every day," he says. There was even a blind chicken that he coveted. "By the time I was in the first grade, I knew how to add, subtract, and divide. I grew up in an environment where my parents expected much of me and now I expect much of myself."
But when he was about to graduate from high school, he got his first real inkling that not everyone had such high hopes for him. Although his teachers had supported his intellect, a counselor assigned to him by the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind told him and his family that they could set him up with a fruit stand in the subway in Boston as a solid, lifelong profession.
"They never mentioned a word about college," Ticchi says, nor any other options. He ignored their advice and earned a bachelor's in economics cum laude from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. -- a real feat, says his close friend and dormmate, Chris Matthews. "Holy Cross was a tough school," says the host of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, who would read textbooks to Ticchi. "There was no grade inflation. You had to work for your grades." At Harvard, Ticchi earned both a master's and a doctorate from the Ed School and on December 17, 1969 -- he still recalls the date by heart -- he became one of the first certified teachers in Massachusetts who was blind.
But again, even those huge accomplishments weren't enough when he started applying for teaching slots. He was blind. No one wanted to take a chance on him.
"I don't know how many resumes I sent out. And it wasn't as easy as it is now," he says. "Back then, you had to type out every envelope, make copies, put on the stamps. . . . "
When he applied for jobs, he didn't, of course, say in his cover letters that he was blind. And by then it was illegal in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to discriminate in hiring on the basis of blindness.
"I knew in many cases that they'd be surprised by the white cane," he says. He could usually tell by actions if the interviewer was interested or not: If he or she leaned forward during the discussion, something Ticchi could sense, it was a good sign. If the door to the office remained open after Ticchi sat down, it wasn't. "I also knew that if the subject of blindness didn't come up, I wouldn't be considered for the job. It's normal to have questions."
Eventually, in 1971 -- almost two years after he became certified -- one principal gave him his chance. Van Seasholes, head of Day Junior High School in Newton, Mass., knew Ticchi from his time student teaching at the school. Seasholes never doubted Ticchi could do the job, even when his superiors questioned the hire.
"That's how a good system works," says Seasholes, now semiretired. "You have confidence in the people that are there. I knew Dave would figure out a way. Education has missed a lot of that -- having confidence in people."
And Ticchi did figure it out. He had students write on the blackboard. A personal reader would help him grade papers and tests. He earned the respect of the students.
"Kids have to respect a teacher," he says. "And you don't have to have 20/20 vision to be respected." Today, nearly four decades after he first started teaching, he says people still ask if his students cheated. "Oh sure," he says, but he's convinced that some kids would have cheated no matter how acute the teacher's vision. "Cheating was alive and well long before there were blind teachers." Over time, he created a classroom culture based on the honor system that worked. "To this day, when I meet former students, they still talk about this."
After six years at the school, Ticchi took a 10-year hiatus from teaching to work for a subsidiary of Xerox. The company had just come out with an optical scan system that digitized data and turned it into speech, primarily for the blind, but also for others with disabilities. The inventor, Raymond Kurzweil, lived in Newton at the time and recruited Ticchi.
Eventually he missed the students and returned to the classroom, this time to Newton North High School, one of the city's two high schools, where he now runs their alternative school-to-career program. Jim Marini, the person who hired Ticchi for the program, says that some staff had initial concerns that troubled students would try to take advantage of a teacher who is blind. But, as he predicted, "The students loved him," says Marini, now interim superintendent of Newton Public Schools. "Kids really recognized that David wasn't a blind person. He was a person of substance."
It was one example, says Ticchi, of adults -- not the students -- questioning his ability to teach effectively. He remembers another, earlier experience when Seasholes asked him into his office. A parent had called with concerns about her son having a blind teacher. Seasholes backed him up, telling the parent that he had 100 percent confidence in Ticchi or he wouldn't have hired him. He also told her that her son would probably have an experience he'd never forget.
"I felt we w
ere lucky to have him," Seasholes says. "I would never have jeopardized the kids. I hired another blind teacher later at Newton South High School but had to let him go. He didn't have it with the kids. Dave always did."
When talking about this time in his life and career, Ticchi, who also oversees the ethics program as a special assistant to the president of the Legal Sea Foods Corporation, gets misty. "When someone is behind you like that, you'd run through a wall for them," he says, "with or without a helmet."
The scene opens with a 32-year-old Ticchi briskly walking down a tree-lined street wearing a scally cap and a thick, dark moustache, a red duffle bag in one hand, a white cane in the other. At the entrance to the school, he opens the door for another teacher. In the next scene, Ticchi is in the classroom taking attendance. Walking around, he calls out names: Allan is here? Rodney? Julie, Ronnie, and Eric. Where are Sherry and Donna? Is Julie getting her books?
He is relying on the students to participate, which they do. Other than Donna getting up to use the stapler, all of the students are in their seats. The noise level is low. During a voice-over, Ticchi explains that this is critical for him to know what's going on in the classroom.
The 1977 documentary is called A Blind Teacher in a Public School and was part of Ticchi's Ed School doctoral thesis. It was his personal contribution, he writes in the thesis, "to the struggle for enlightenment in the area of the blind as public school teachers of the sighted." It ran on PBS. For years after, people still recognized him on the street.
His interest in highlighting the way life really is for someone with a disability was the reason he also made a second documentary, Out of Sight, with noted filmmaker David Sutherland in 1993 that focused on a feisty horse trainer who is blind and was once referred to as a "bad girl Huck Finn."
Ticchi says, "Legislation is important, but what it comes down to is changing attitudes. I wanted to make a film that might be shown on TV that showed that blind people are regular people. We're not superhuman or subhuman. We're really not. If we are one of those, it's not because we're blind; it's because of something else."
Professor Tom Hehir spends a lot of time in the courses he teaches at the Ed School talking about these images -- the superhuman and the subhuman. Both are harmful for those with disabilities, says Hehir, who was director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs and played a leading role in developing the Clinton administration's proposal for the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA.
Referred to as "ableism," this form of discrimination devalues disabilities, Hehir writes in Special Education for a New Century. Whether the image is of a frail, pitied person in leg braces (think poster child for a telethon) or of the inspirational disabled person (think quadriplegic who summits Kilimanjaro), there's a failure to accept and value disabled people as they are.
Matt Underwood, Ed.M.'04, principal of the Atlanta Charter Middle School in Atlanta, Ga., who took courses with Hehir, says that in order to avoid ableism, the mindset in their school is that that everyone has learning differences. For this reason, every student -- not just the disabled -- has a "personalized learning plan" similar to an IEP.
"This helps to lessen the stigma sometimes attached to these sorts of supports because we make it clear that everyone needs help with something," he says.
Hehir says that ableism in schools also takes time away from actual learning. When Ticchi was first learning to read and write, he did it the same way the other students were learning, despite the fact that is was a hard process. (He had to use large-sized print and a big magnifying glass.)
"I'd get very close, so it was really slow going," he says. Taking notes in class was extremely tedious. "If there was anything I would change, it would be that I learned Braille earlier. It's critical. There's a crisis today in Braille literacy. There's a shortage of teachers and a misconception that technology will replace it." Many blind students today rely on MP3 players, audiobooks, and computer software. According to a report released last year by the National Federation of the Blind, about half of all blind children learned Braille in the 1950s compared with 10 percent today.
Ticchi points to current employment rates for the blind as good reason to utilize all methods of learning -- technology and Braille.
"The unemployment rate is about 70 percent for blind people. It's outrageously high," he says. "Of the remaining 30 percent who are employed, nearly 90 percent are Braille readers."
A similar struggle has been brewing for years within the deaf community. Instead of learning American Sign Language (ASL), many children who are deaf or hard of hearing are encouraged primarily to use the language of the dominant culture by learning to read lips and speak or to "fix" their inability to hear by having a cochlear implant surgically installed, which provides a sense of sound. Unfortunately, as Shapiro writes, "even in the best of circumstances, only 30 percent of speech can be read from lip movements."
Which is exactly why Jeremiah Ford, C.A.S.'91, principal at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, a public school in Boston, makes sure that all of his students know and use sign language. Not only is it the language of the deaf, but also, as he's seen many times since he started at the school in 2004, technology fails.
"We had a young woman whose implant was damaged recently," Ford says. "It had to go out for repair and she was totally deaf. So she signed. It was advantageous that she could do that." Even when parents express a strong interest in having their children learn orally, he points out the plus-sides to knowing ASL as well.
"Parents have a strong opinion on how they want their child to be educated," he says. "My job is to bring the value of the deaf cultural experience, the value of ASL, regardless of whether you are being taught orally as well. It's powerful to be multilingual."
Thirty-five years after the Education for All Handicapped Children bill was enacted, stories are still being written in the press asking the question: Is it working? As Singer noted in her Education Week commentary, "Yes, P.L 94-142 is working across the country -- but not uniformly." In the absence of very detailed regulations, she said, individual states and districts have followed their own guidelines over the years. "Differences are found in almost all provisions of the law: who is identified, how they are evaluated, where they are placed, and which services are received."
But, as Singer also noted, this kind of "research perspective" may not be the best vantage point to evaluate whether or not the legislation is working. Perhaps the stories of real people like Amanda Grant, Ed.M.'10, are what matter most. Diagnosed in second grade with a learning disability, Grant says she was supported in her public schools in Massachusetts and Kentucky and feels the legislation helped her get the accommodations she needed as both a student and later as a teacher. Now she wants to take the legislation a step further.
"I taught for two years in Tanzania at a school for children with disabilities. There were no laws to help them. It's all grassroots," she says. "I'm looking at how laws like Section 504 and IDEA can be move
d outward and can help children all over the world who have disabilities."
And of course, there's the story of David Ticchi. Although his little four-room schoolhouse in West Bridgewater is gone, replaced by a more modern brick building, the legacy of what a quality public education offered him is clear, as shown in a letter written in 1973 by one of his junior high students to a superintendent in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in support of a teacher who lost his vision and then his job:
"Maybe if we give people a chance, they just might jump out and shock us. Never after seven years of elementary school have I ever had the most respect for a teacher. I do admit I liked all my teachers and tried to be a good student, but never did I test myself for loyalty and truth as I do this year. Most of the people that got Mr. Ticchi, our English teacher, who is blind, thought how easy it would be to chew gum, sneak in when you're late for class, etc. But they soon found out they always got caught. We soon grew to know and to respect Mr. Ticchi as a teacher and a human being."
To watch a video interview with David Ticchi, go to wpdev.gse.harvard.edu/ed/extras.