We knew we were taking a chance by bringing our 8-year-old multiply handicapped daughter, Betsy, to Virginia when we accepted jobs here. Betsy suffers from severe mental and physical retardation. She is 42 inches tall and weighs only 23 pounds. But despite her handicaps she attended a toddler program in Vermont, where we lived, and at age 3 was enrolled in a neighborhood school. By age 5 she was participating in an extended school day program with her peers and her own aide.
We hoped when we moved to Fairfax County that we could find another neighborhood school like the one in Vermont that helped to strengthen her skills and gave her the pleasure of other kids' company. But it was not to be.
We learned that Betsy would have to attend one of two regional centers for handicapped students. We toured one of them, the Kilmer Center, before we moved and were impressed by how capable the students were. Most were not nearly as handicapped as our daughter. Most could walk, talk, follow directions and perform assigned tasks. We couldn't help thinking that if these children had been in Vermont, they would have been enrolled in regular schools.
We also found out that there were no medical programs or other services especially geared to treating the handicapped. Still, we couldn't think of leaving Betsy in Vermont.
Betsy started school at the Kilmer Center in late November. But despite a very capable teaching staff, she did not thrive there. She had a long, two-hour bus ride each day. Once at the center, she slept about 50 percent of the time. There were few good days when she was really alert. We were discouraged by her progress reports.
Betsy really needed the stimulation she received from her non-handicapped peers at her old elementary school in Vermont. There, she joined a second-grade class for the morning home-room period, and participated in art, music, reading, recess and special assemblies. Her interaction with the other students was good for everyone. We could see that Betsy's second-grade friends had a special affection for her, as she had for them.
In stark contrast, we are appalled by the education programs offered to the handicapped in Fairfax County -- a school system that boasts of its reputation as a leader in education. This is not true when it comes to services offered to the handicapped and the mentally retarded. No handicapped child should have to attend a special school. With all the documentation on how beneficial it is for these kids to attend neighborhood schools, the Fairfax County school board seems to be operating in the 19th century. There seems to be no emphasis from the state or the county school board to help handicapped children or their families lead more normal lives. What is even more amazing is that there are not more parents and other concerned individuals lobbying intensively for changes.
After three months, we realized that Betsy could not thrive here. She is now living in Vermont with a foster family and attending her former school. When we first walked into her old classroom in March, her friends shouted with delight, "Betsy's back!" And Betsy was just beaming.
Betsy is her old self again, and doing much better now. Our only regret and pain comes from the fact that we cannot see her as much as we'd like. We only wish that more parents would let their local school boards know that segregated programs for the handicapped are a disservice to some really neat kids who deserve a whole lot better. Then our Betsy could come home to Virginia and her family.
-- Robert W. Andrews
and Elizabeth L. Norton