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Walking on Hot Coals

Hearing the phrase, “When I was growing up,” at least for me, is as good as taking a sleeping pill. My mind wonders and my eyelids get heavy. If you can fight the urge to nod off, I’d like to begin by talking about when I was growing up.

It was a time (in the 1950s and 60s) before any legislation on disabilities. There was no Rehabilitation Act, no ADA, no IEPs in high school, and no offices of disability services in colleges. More than a few school districts simply refused to take any blind students, something that was perfectly legal at the time. If was not uncommon for job applications to not only ask about race but “handicap,” and, if you didn’t answer, your application was likely to be tossed. They, definitely, were not the good old days.

Consequently, if you were a blind student, or had a blind child, you had to confront a lot of hurdles that don’t have to be confronted today. I’m not saying that there aren’t hurdles now, just that there were a lot more and that they were often a lot higher then. Since school officials, employers, and the like knew there was no way you could force or threaten them into doing what you wanted, the only way you could get what you wanted was to persuade them and/or demonstrate by your performance The rightness of your cause.

Unfortunately, there were a great many times when this was not enough. After all, the Constitution gives us the right to be idiots, and a great many of us choose to frequently exercise that right. Today, much of this would be avoided by reminding the other person of the law, if they didn’t know it already.

I wouldn’t want to turn the clock back and return to those days. They did, however, have one very important advantage over the twenty-first century: You and your parents absolutely had to learn how to convince People of the rightness of your cause and then back it up with performance.

For all of the undoubted advantages students and parents have today, I do worry that, with the very best of intentions, the educational system can create an emotional cocoon and set of expectations the graduate will never see again the rest of their life. Once out of school, he or she will have to make all of the arrangements that the teacher of the visually impaired or Office of Disability Services used to make and a great many more. I know, in theory, they are supposed to be taught how to do this while still in school, but there was an advantage of being forced to learn all of this without the web of safety nets available today. This is not to say that, because I had to walk on hot coals, I think it’s a great idea for today’s students to walk on them as well, only that, horrible as it was, it had some advantages that should not be forgotten.

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