Project spotlights education fight for developmentally disabled

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(Host) Fifty years ago the Bennett C. Douglas School opened in Burlington at a time when their children weren’t allowed to attend public schools.

It was the first step in changing the way the state views people with handicaps.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, a new oral history tells the story of how families and advocates fought for public education for people with developmental disabilities.

(A gong sounds)

(Narrator) “From this little history you can see, democracy works for you and me “

(Zind) The play “Bill’s Bill” which will be performed this week in Burlington recounts a little known chapter in Vermont history. It’s a story also told in a new oral history collected by VSA Arts of Vermont.

Theresa Villemaire is among those who participated in the oral history project.

Her story traces the years-long effort to open public schools to children with disabilities.

In 1956, Villemaire’s son Bill was born with Down Syndrome. At the time his condition was called Mongoloidism.

Villemaire recalls that before she was allowed to see her son, doctors gathered around her hospital bed and told her she would be unable to care for him.

(Villemaire) “And they said, there’s a lady in Randolph who takes Mongoloid babies. And I said, what can she do for him that I can’t do?”

(Zind) Doctors told Villemaire that her son would eventually have to be sent to the Brandon Training School.

When it originally opened in 1915, the facility was called the State School for the Feebleminded. At its peak, Brandon housed more than 650 people.

Villemaire says she never considered sending her son to Brandon. Instead she and her family homeschooled Bill. Villemaire says she did her best to give him a normal childhood at a time when children with developmental disabilities were usually isolated.

(Villemaire) “I guess I’m ashamed to say it, but I even tried to pay kids to play with Bill. They really didn’t include people who couldn’t keep up with them.”

(Zind) In the 1960s, Vermont decided to slowly phase out the Brandon Training School in favor of community based care.

Still, the state’s focus was on housing and not schooling the developmentally disabled. It was believed that many couldn’t be educated.

In Burlington, parents of disabled children raised money, hired teachers and opened the Bennett C. Douglas school in 1956.

As a young nun, Sister Janice Ryan was assigned to work at the school. It was her introduction to how children with developmental disabilities were treated.

(Ryan) “The most startling experience for me was to learn that children and youth with a certain level of handicap did not have a right to go to public school. I can’t tell you how surprised I was at that.”

(Zind) Ryan went on to start the state’s first program to teach special educators. And she became an advocate for opening public schools to children with disabilities.

The breakthrough came in 1972 when Vermont passed a Special Education Law that guaranteed equal educational opportunities for all children. A federal law modeled on the Vermont legislation would follow.

(Zind) School systems across Vermont now mainstream children with disabilities. It’s an expensive proposition. The federal government has never fully funded special education. But it clearly benefits the children.

Ashley Young, is a special ed student at Milton High School.

(Young) “Thank God I’m in school because if I wasn’t, I don’t know where else I would be. I’d probably be home doing nothing.”

(Zind) Theresa Villemaire’s son, Bill was one first to enter public schools after the 1972 special education law was passed. Bill Villemaire says his education has given him a chance to work doing something he loves. He has a cable access program in the Burlington area.

(Villemaire) “You want to know what makes me alive? The fact that I’m doing something worthwhile.”

(Zind) The play, “Bill’s Bill” is named for Villemaire, but it’s also a tribute to his mother and many other parents and advocates who fought to make children with disabilities valued members of society.

(Cast) “And they all lived happily ever after! Music “good work everybody “

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

Note: The play “Bill’s Bill” will be performed this Wednesday (July 5th) at one in the afternoon at Flynn Space in Burlington and on July 19th at 7 o’clock at the Elley-Long Music Center at St. Michael’s College.

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