We watched Peanut Butter Falcon on Netflix over Christmas vacation. The amusing, emotionally touching movie is a coming of age story starring a Down’s Syndrome young man (Played by Zack Gottsagen). Another young man with Down’s Syndrome is featured in Stumptown a television crime drama. Paralleling Falcon, Ansel Parisos (Played by Cole Sibus) is struggling with how to live as a young adult in Portland. Both of these shows are remarkable because individuals with Down’s Syndrome staring in major television roles would have seemed an impossibility thirty years ago.
My first job out of graduate school (1978) was director of the Wyoming ARC/Developmental Disability Council. The Education for All Handicapped Children’s Act was passed in 1975. The purpose of the federal law was to insure a public school education was provided to all
handicapped children. We had a lot of trouble in Wyoming getting schools to accept disabled children into the classroom. Parents didn’t know they had rights to insist the schools provide services. I remember speaking to the Wyoming Appropriations Committee about the law and having the Chair of the committee interrupt me and say, “These kids are like Angus in among the Herefords. If we had any of these kids, we would see them and we just don’t.”
I was young, feisty and full of energy. That comment made me furious. I thought if you want to see handicapped children than I will make sure we go out and identify them. The Developmental Disabilities Council provided a grant to the University of Wyoming to conduct screening clinics in Wyoming’s small rural communities that summer. The teams identified more than 650 preschool children who were in need of special education services. There is no voice more passionate or pervasive than a parent who is told their child needs services but the legislature is too miserly to fund the services. Believe me, the Chair of the Appropriations heard from those parents.
During this period, we were trying to fund early intervention preschools and adult work programs all across the state. We had a statewide funding formula which cost millions of dollars. Oil-rich Wyoming coffers could certainly afford to pay for these programs but conservative legislators were not convinced. We had the votes in the House because the Speaker of the House, a very conservative Republican was married to a special education teacher. He recognized the need. But we did not have the votes in the Senate.
I worked phone lines every day and every night. I wasn’t calling legislators. I was calling parents to call their Senator(s) and asked him to vote yes. The day of the vote the Senate gallery was packed with parents and children. The votes were tallied. The yes/no’s flashed up on the screen. We were one vote short. The bill was going to die. I could feel the disappointment of the parents squeezing my heart. One Senator from Newcastle, Wyoming, a tiny town in Northeast Wyoming stood up. You could hear a pin drop at that moment. He changed his vote to a yes. He said when he made the change, “I cannot go home and face my constituents if this bill dies. Wyoming needs to serve the developmentally disabled.” The gallery went wild. with applause and cheering.
Over thirty years later, handicapped children who had access to early intervention services are moving into our communities, working in our businesses, starring in television shows and movies. They’re showing us that advocacy work on the side of justice pays off.
The Women’s March is this weekend. I march in principle. Black, white, Hispanic, Native American, yellow, male, female, LGBTQ-A, handicapped, old, young; we all deserve an equal chance to succeed in this great country. We are a country where one person’s voice/vote can still make a difference.