Accepting the challenge to take a position as a professor in the school of education at the University of Massachusetts was a wonderful opportunity that rarely comes along in one’s lifetime. Maddie Bragar a PhD in special education from the Syracuse University and Sal had the marvelous task of assembling a team that would approach the issues concerning those with handicapping conditions and secondary schools. The program was to be centered on a one year Master’s program for high school principals and superintendents in order for them to understand what the issues were regarding students who had previously been labeled as slow, retarded, handicapped, and a host of other limitations which were imposed by the system.
It was important for Sal and Maddy that their staff represent not just part of society but reflect,genuine diversity.In the final analysis the staff which was broken into two sections to cover the entire state of Massachusetts, reflected gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preference and handicapping conditions. The other key ingredient was that each member of the staff had a passion regarding the individual growth and development of all children at the secondary level.
Strategically it was important whenever you are involved in the change process not to behave as if you have all the answers, and equally important is the fact that you are not selling something You are trying to enroll people in a process which benefits all of those involved. It was critical for their team to understand what the issues were from the perspective of the secondary school principals and superintendents ,and to resist the temptation to label them as resistant to change. If the team members could truly understand what the limitations were from their perspective Sal and Maddy felt that the task then would be made easier when they introduced the issues concerning the students who were being largely ignored in the schools. The key issues that were raised from the principals and superintendents were also reflected in the attitudes of many of their teachers. They resented the fact that without any significant reasonable resources they were being asked to create individual educational plans for children that had been left behind by the system.
Chapter 766 was the forerunner of the national Vocational Rehab law and was grossly underfunded. As in many cases laws are promulgated without funding, and this was very true of chapter 766. Maddy and Sal learned from the superintendents and principals that their schools were woefully unprepared for the integration of students who had handicapping conditions. A perfect example of this was that their schools were not physically capable of handling anyone in a wheelchair. Very few of the schools had ramps, elevators were almost nonexistent, and it would have been almost literally impossible for a child to negotiate the system without assistance. To convey how difficult this was for children the program put the participants through a series of exercises which they hoped would enable them to understand what it was like to be a student in the schools who had been labeled as handicapped
They were put in wheelchairs and asked to access their way around the building. They were given tests in foreign languages, and were also exposed to speakers from the community who had experienced in their own personal lives the difficulties of having a handicapping condition and being a student at the secondary level. This process did not always go smoothly, and there were at times vigorous exchanges between the candidates and the people that were brought in to speak with them .However, it was obvious as time went on that there was a growing understanding, not so much that they were villains, but that the system had failed these children ,and that it was the responsibility of all of us to become advocates for those who enter the school regardless of what the conditions were regarding their handicapping situation.
One of the most challenging parts of the educational process for the team were the workshops for teachers. Initially Maddie and Sal would run into a group of angry teachers who felt that we were being treated as villains. They often felt that the government was forcing them to employ practices which would create havoc in their own lives, and were truly not beneficial for any of the students. They thought that the integration of children would water down the educational process for their” normal students” and so we initially were met with a barrage of statements regarding what an absolute abysmal failure this program was going to be. Maddie and Sal learned not to be defensive about these initial barrages, and when r they truly listened they found almost without exception at the end of the day they had made significant process in not only understanding their issues ,but in conveying to them what some of the issues were on the other side of the fence. They also informed them that their role was not to evaluate their performances as teachers but to to provide necessary assistance which would not only benefit the child with handicapping conditions but also teachers. The team made an assumption that if they showed respect for their role as teachers they would be receptive to the process.,It would be a lot more beneficial than coming in as some evaluating process out of the blue which determined that they had failed