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"Why My Mayor is Completely Wrong About Special Education"

Written By:

Mike Reynolds

I have to admit I was never a big fan of Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald.  Most people I know really find him to be extremely offensive. MacDonald told the BBC in 2012 that new immigrants, “should leave their culture at the door” when immigrating to America. MacDonald also chose a notoriously homophobic couple when he was once asked to choose model Lewiston residents.

But on September 27th, MacDonald was on Fox News speaking because he made an outrageous (and very illegal) proposal to print the names of residents receiving “Welfare.” Because he was on national television, it seemed he decided that if he kept being outrageous, he would stay in the headlines. With that in mind, he said that all the welfare moms are bringing their disabled kids to Lewiston because they want to tax Lewiston’s special education system. The statement is so patently outrageous and false that if he had said it anywhere else, it probably would have been laughed at it. But Robert MacDonald, our wonderful mayor, whose entire economic development plan can be summed up in the opening of yet another call center for his expansion of “good jobs in Lewiston,” is blaming disabled kids, and by proxy, shaming their parents and anyone who needs special education services.

Lewiston has played a pretty significant role historically in special ed. history and law.  In 1964, Lewiston was one of the trial sites for the program that would become Head Start. This was the first federal program that required children with disabilities to be included in the curriculum.  A young girl named Alice was in the class in Lewiston, she had Spina Bifida, a developmental disability where the vast majority of people who are diagnosed have incontinence issues. The next year she was denied the right to go to kindergarten at the same school, because she still needed diapers. Alice was eventually mainstreamed, graduated and went to college in Farmington.  Alice Conway would have a son, work and volunteer throughout Maine and nationally, and be the impetus for the Air Carrier Transportation Act. The Act would have been named after her, but she forbid it. She died in 2012. A much longer article can be found elsewhere off our main page on Ability Maine.

In 1993, Lewiston’s special education program was again in the national spotlight, when a young girl with profound Cerebral Palsy named Corey Brown was attending a Lewiston school and her mother asked the school to abide by a Do Not Resuscitate order. Cerebral Palsy is not a terminal diagnosis; Corey Brown was neither dying nor receiving hospice services, but due to her extensive brain damage there were legitimate concerns about quality of life issues if Ms. Brown were to suffer more brain damage as a result of choking or other unforeseen events. The Lewiston School Board adopted an individualized plan for adapting life sustaining measures for Ms. Brown. Corey Brown died at age 13 of pneumonia in 1998.

Between those two parts of Lewiston’s Special Education history, I managed to attend and fortunately, graduate from Lewiston High School in 1992. The Corey Brown story was the first “feature” story I ever wrote in college.  But I’m getting ahead of myself. I attended Lewiston schools from the start of third grade to the completion of my senior year.

The Special Education services that I received were largely a result of my mother being a tireless advocate for my needs and not taking “no” for an answer. I doubt special education services have gotten so much better that there would be an active migration to Lewiston for its special ed. services. In fact, I find that idea completely absurd. I thrived because I learned at a young age that I needed to advocate, sometimes loudly, for myself because sometimes no one else can even conceptualize your perspective. For many of my teachers, I was the first disabled student they ever taught. I did have the one advantage of having been labeled “gifted and talented” when I first entered the Lewiston School System. One of my favorite stories that my mother repeated probably once too often was how when my special ed. teacher was trying to do my IQ test, she had to stop because she literally had never tested anyone who had made it that far, and she really was quiteafraid that she didn’t even know the answers to the questions she was giving me. I was eight years old.

I survived the special ed. system by fighting for my rights and getting into college. It isn’t rocket science that Special Education is a great investment for the money; it can help an adult with significant disabilities live independently the community. They may rely on the assistance of a Personal Care Attendant, or other supports, but that is far cheaper than a nursing home for decades and can lead to greater quality of life outcomes. There are dozens of studies that show the effectiveness of mainstreaming and inclusion, and I doubt in any of the mayoral candidates of my fair city, Lewiston, those statistics will be brought up in any debate, but that may be a task for the local radical disabled activist who has the minor in Disability Studies to undertake.

Linked is the video of the Debate that took place at the Lewiston Public Library on 10/5/15. Thanks to Maine Progressive Warehouse for the video!

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