Saturday, September 11, 2010

Marin Society for Crippled Children

When I was in high school I spent two summers volunteering in a recreation program for kids with disabilities run by the Marin Society for Crippled Children. One year it was held at Arequipa, which had formerly been a sanitarium for women with tuberculosis, and the other year the program was held at a school.
Most of the children attending had some sort of physical disability that required the use of crutches or wheelchairs. Some had become crippled (Yes, I know that term isn't considered acceptable now, but it was then) as a result of the polio epidemic that had killed my father. But there were two children who didn't fit in with the others because their disabilities were different and the second summer I spent most of my time with them.
One little boy did use a wheelchair, but he was also blind and had such severe brain injuries he could barely communicate. His condition was caused by falling out of a moving car when the door swung open. That was before seat belts existed.
The other little boy was physically active and deaf. He was obviously extremely smart. He loved to watch the TV show, Zorro and had learned to communicate with the gestures Zorro's mute servant used in the show. He was able to tell us almost anything he wanted, and to understand the gestures I and the other volunteers used with him. He was interested in nature and would ask us about the bugs and birds, but we couldn't communicate all he wanted to know.
At that time the Oral Method was still used in schools and deaf kids were forbidden to use gestures at all because it was thought that would motivate them to talk and read lips. At the end of the summer when the boy's parents found out he had been using gestures to communicate with us he was forbidden ever to watch Zorro again.
Years later I met someone who had worked with that boy when he was older and learned that he had been considered mentally retarded (another term no longer used) by the school district. If only he had been permitted to learn and communicate using American Sign Language he would probably have done well in school.

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