Attending public school and issues of accessibility


There was one point where they wanted to put me in public school. Wherever this neighborhood was my parents didn't like it and the school to me it was reminiscent of the hospital and I didn't want to go there. They had the kids taking naps in the afternoon on cots. When I actually went to school, it was high school--it was a health conservation class. If you couldn't go out to the rest of the classes like everyone else, if you couldn't leave your homeroom, all of your education was in this room. If you could go out to the classes like all the other high school students, that was your homeroom, and you just went to class.


What did you mean by if you couldn't go out?


Some of the kids, whether it was that they physically were unable to go to the other classes, or there were intellectual issues that they needed the one-to-one, some of us got all our education in the homeroom class, and some of us went out to classes. I'm going back. Like on home instruction, I did all of grade school on home instruction. That was an issue for me. I wanted to go to high school. I wanted to go to school. You're asking about my parents: this was a debate between my parents. My mother was supportive of me going to high school. My father--Catholic school was where everybody went. Public school was if you were failing in Catholic school, and it was not considered a good thing to be going to public school. My father was afraid people would maltreat me. Public school had a bad reputation. My mother was very supportive. And what had been happening physically, the Visiting Nurses Service sent PTs to give me physical therapy. My mother learned to do physical therapy and put my brace on, and then as I got older I did it myself.

But, they [the PTs] were trying to teach me how to do the stairs, and they were trying for years. This was in the hospital in rehab. They used to teach you to fall on a mat, and then pick yourself up. Because I had this fear of being on the edge and falling, they had to kick the crutches from underneath me. I couldn't let go and just fall. I just couldn't do it. We'd spend hours on the stairs with my hand taped to the stairs, trying to get me to swing off the step, and I was afraid of falling. So what one visiting physical therapist got the bright idea to do, was, we call it desensitization in psychology. We bumped down and we worked our way up. Now, I had fourteen steps, this was the first flight, then another fourteen steps. So if you're afraid of being on the edge of something and afraid of falling--it's not heights, I don't get dizzy, it's fear of falling down I guess--this is really tough stuff. So we worked our way up, and finally I went and could swing off the top. Every once in a while this fear would come back, even years later, and I'd be like standing there, and I'd have to like talk myself to swing off that first top step.

But when I was able to do the stairs, then I could go to the bus. The bus had a lift for the wheelchair, but you had to be outside; they didn't come upstairs to take you down.


Why couldn't you go to parochial school?


Inaccessible, inaccessible. That's basically it. The church was inaccessible. The school was inaccessible. As you know, the public schools were not accessible. You had certain schools with segregated classes. Especially grade school, it was all segregated. There was no such thing as integration or mainstream or whatever you want to call it. High school--this is also interesting--you had to be self-sufficient. You had to be able to take care of yourself in the bathroom and so forth. You were about fourteen when you're going into--I was about fourteen because I was held back that one year--and you had to be interviewed by the principal to see if they would accept you. There were very few schools, and they still have the right at this point to refuse to accept you.


Which schools?


I went to--it doesn't exist under this name anymore--it was Eli Whitney Vocational High School. I knew I wanted to go to college, but there were only certain schools that you could go to in your area, and they still could refuse to take you. So when I went, I remember being mortified when the principal asked me if I could take care of myself in the toilet. At that time, you didn't have these discussions with older men. That was kind

of mortifying, but they agreed to accept me, and then I was bussed there and I had my homeroom. It was mixed. All the disabled kids, seniors, freshmen, everybody was in that homeroom, and then you went out to classes, if you could go out to classes.

My high school experience was basically integrated. The interesting thing, like when we talk integration and mainstream--I equate this with integration of black people--it's sort of if you could put them in the same school, but the kids in your homeroom are basically the kids you socialize with, so even though you could have sat with anyone, all the disabled kids sat together, not because people wouldn't sit with you, but because these were your friends; you got to know each other.

I was in other classes, and I made friends with other people, but my closest friends were all disabled because those are the ones you got together with in the morning, and some of you are on the same bus, so we all ate together. Even though we were in an integrated lunch room and all, we all ate together.

[Tape 1, Side B]

I'm going to go back for a second with my parents. The really good thing, I think, is that they rarely treated me differently than my sisters. Every once in a while they would try to give me preferential treatment. We were always fighting. When you have three, it tends to be two against one, and sometimes you're the one, and sometimes you're part of the two. So, I remember one occasion we were fighting about a TV program, and my mother said, "Oh, let your sister watch what she wants; she's handicapped." All of us turned in unison and said, "What does that have to do with anything?" But in general--and "handicapped" was the preferred term to "crippled" back then. In general though, what things I could do, we did as a family. Now there would be activities where I would be left out. If you had to travel by subway--my parents didn't drive--then I wouldn't be able to do it.

But I remember one time, and I think this is a good thing to relate to people, I played on the street. You grew up in the Bronx; I grew up in Brooklyn. You went down; you played on the street. You sat on your stoop; you played on the street. Other places don't understand stoops, if you're not from the city. So, we would play on the street with the other kids. Sometimes the kids would take turns riding in my wheelchair. Sometimes we played hide-and-seek. We basically played on our block, until my sisters reached a certain age. They weren't allowed to cross the street by themselves. So you stayed on one block, and maybe you'd go to the other side of the block, but you basically didn't cross the street.

So there was a party. Some of the girls that we played with, they were having a birthday party, and I knew this, but I wasn't invited. The night of the party I kept waiting to see if I was going to get invited, and the night of the party--the party rolls around, no invitation. So I'm upstairs--I was about eight years old--and I'm crying. My mother said, "Well, I'll take you to the movies." "I don't want to go to the movies. I wanted to go to a party. Why wasn't I invited?" and I'm crying. My mother said to me, "Denise, you have to make your own way in this world. People are not going to not do things because you can't do it. You have to find your own way. The world won't stop for you." I wasn't happy to be told this [laughter], but it was a good lesson, especially in the time when she was saying this. This was the 1950s.


Now I know my mother--she would never admit this--but I know she went to the mother of the child who was having the party and asked that I be invited, because my mother came up and she said, "Oh, you were invited. You just have to put your dress on and we'll go." We put little dresses on then, if you remember the fluffy slips and everything. I said, "No, you went and asked her. I don't want to go. You asked her," and she said, "No, I didn't. They did want you to come," so the desire to be at this party won out over pride.

I went to the party. But it wasn't meanness on the part of the kids, because we played on the street. But it was like, because everyone else was in a certain circle, these would be kids, they all went to the same school. Everybody went to Saint Anthony's; that was our parish. Kids played together, and you wouldn't be part of their consciousness to be invited to this party. Again, they're up a flight of stairs--two flights of stairs--so I had to be carried. So people--it's like, if you're not totally in the circle like on the street, it didn't matter--you were just running around on the street and everything. So there were things like that where you weren't part of everything.