Saturday, March 23, 2013

An Honor

"A burden," Wisconsin state representative Dan LeMahieu (R-Cascade) called my daughter, speaking before a gathering of school board members and public school administrators in Madison last week.  "A burden on our schools."

OK, he wasn't singling out Joy as an individual.  He was talking about students with special needs in general, you understand.  But especially the more disabled ones, the more expensive ones. Speaking in Joy's own school district, about students with extra challenges... so yes, in a very real way, he did refer to my daughter as a burden.

Rep. LeMahieu probably didn't know it, but his choice of words has a long and dishonorable history when it come to people with developmental disabilities.  Consider the words of Samuel G. Howe, 165 years ago, speaking in 1848 before the Massachusetts legislature on the subject of people with developmental challenges (emphasis mine):
This class of person is always a burden upon the public.  Persons of this class are idle and often mischievous, and are dead weights upon the material prosperity of the state.  They are worse than useless.  Every such person is like a Upas tree, that poisons the whole moral atmosphere about him.
At least Mr. Howe was "only" arguing that people with developmental disabilities should be institutionalized apart from the rest of society, thus setting up over a hundred years of segregation and horrible conditions at immense taxpayer expense.  At least Howe was "only" recommending putting people away, not putting them to the unspeakable experiments and gas chambers of the concentration camps, where people with disabilities were tortured and slaughtered not a century later.

Speaking of poisoned moral atmosphere -- in the year of my own birth, 1968, some so-called thinkers were still stuck in the same atrocity-level patterns.  Here are the words of "ethicist" Joseph Fletcher writing in the Atlantic, arguing that putting to death was an acceptable choice for infants with Down syndrome: "True guilt only arises from an offense against a person, and a Downs is not a person."

Let that one sink in for a little bit...

Forty-some years later, my wonderful daughter is a welcomed and contributing member of her classroom community, together with her delightful and accomplished classmate who has Down syndrome, guaranteed by our country the right to a free and appropriate public education.

"A burden," Rep. LeMahieu called them last week, in the language of those who would have denied these girls their humanity not a generation ago.

Then an orator from the audience took the microphone, a school superintendent from Pulaski, Wisconsin by the name of Mel Lightner.

Dr. Lightner drew applause from the crowd as he spoke truth to power.  He identified himself as the parent of a student with special needs, as well as a school administrator.  And he reframed the education of students with disabilities in these words:

I do want to make one comment before I get to my question, and I don’t know if the gentleman up there meant this, but you said special education is a burden – that’s what he said, is a burden to school districts. 
Actually it’s an obligation, a responsibility, and it’s an HONOR to educate children with exceptional educational needs or special needs.

As the applause swelled, Dr. Lightner moved to his next point, to take on and expose the special needs vouchers, a harmful ALEC proposal that was blocked in Wisconsin last year.  Unfortunately this year it's been slipped into the 2013-2015 state budget where it's even harder to kill, greased with barrels-full of out-of-state campaign cash.

You should listen to the audio clip itself to hear the scorn drip from Dr. Lightner's words as he speaks of the special needs "scholarships," as they're called in the budget, as he tears apart the manufactured demand for this proposal that did NOT originate in the communities of Wisconsin.  Here is the transcript:

By the way, my name is Dr. Mel Lightner, I’ve been a school superintendent for twenty years in the state of Wisconsin – and I am alarmed and shamed at the movement to privatize and de-fund public education.  I think that’s the national movement, and at least two of the people up there are part of that movement in my eyes.  Kudos to [Sen.] Jennifer [Shilling, also of the panel], who’s a strong advocate for our children.  
Ladies and gentlemen, we are at the crossroads in the state of Wisconsin.  And I want to get back to the special education issue, because I have a special needs child.  Here’s my question.  My question is this: Special education “scholarships” or vouchers, private school vouchers, we have a mass of Wisconsinites who have come to you and said “LET’S DO THIS”?!? 
I don’t see it.  I don’t see it in my community, I don’t see it in the state, I don’t think you’re being responsive to the Wisconsin people.  You’re part of a national movement that is hunkered down and coming through with massive private dollars.  I think that’s where you are, and my question is: Is that not the case?  [Applause]
I wish that I could tell you that Rep. LeMahieu and his fellow panelist from the Joint Finance Committee, Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) saw the light and were swayed by Dr. Lightner's words.  Alas, this was not to be.

Senator Darling didn't address the source of the voucher legislation, responding with rote talking points about "choice."  Even worse, Rep. LeMahieu defended his use of the word "burden."  He didn't really mean "burden," you understand, it's just that special needs students cost more, which makes them a financial... well, BURDEN!  He kept using that word, over and over, just like his counterparts in shameful years gone by.

It's not a burden, Rep. LeMahieu.

These are our children.  And in the words of Dr. Mel Lightner of Pulaski:

It's an obligation, and it's a responsibility, and it's an HONOR.

Stop Special Needs Vouchers, Wisconsin!
(Click on the link to learn more and to join the movement...)


Char Brandl said...

I sure wish Mr. LeMahieu and some of his cohorts could have been at Roy Bedward's presentation this week. Check out his web site:

A "burden?" I don't think so!

buckeyebadger said...

Thank you so much for posting this. It is so disheartening to hear children like mine referred to in this way by officials in our state. The response was so eloquent and true, but the majority of our state legislators, including the one who misrepresents me, Alberta Darling, refuse to hear our cries, and have feelings only for the coins jangling in their pockets.

Unknown said...

Awesome post....thanks for sharing this story. Very powerful.

JoyMama said...

Quiet One - Invite 'em next time! Can't hurt, might help...

buckeyebadger - well said.

Imagine Wisconsin - glad you found this - gives me the chance to let you know that for Valentine's Day, I Facebooked your Let's Measure Love post (speaking of awesome!)

Suze said...

This post is so very beautifully and elegantly written.

I hate that they use the word "burden." It's insulting for everyone, not just the students with special needs themselves, but all the people involved in their education, from their parents to their teachers to their aides and therapists and counselors. Their jobs and salaries and the work they do are a burden?? I think not.

I consider it an honor to know Joy.

KT said...

It's hard to believe that in the 21st century, there are still people, let alone legislators, that think the way Rep. LeMahieu does.