Education in Manchester: Able NH and the Problem of Students with Disabilities, Then and Now

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Laconia State School opened in the year 1903, housing 82 residents between three buildings. The Stafford County Farm fire in 1895 revealed an unexpected truth: a great many children were living in almshouses. They were impoverished. They had no family support. They were left to their own devices. These houses, colloquially called poor houses, were intended as shelters for criminals and people with mental or physical disabilities. In those days, the term “feeble-minded” was used to describe people with developmental disabilities.

The Laconia State School was started as a program of segregation based on the idea that “feeble-minded” people more easily influenced others towards moral degradation. Having a developmental disability, in those days, was seen as a character flaw. The school was intended to be used by people aged 3 to 21, with the exception of women over 21 being allowed. By the year 1916, the school, despite having added several facilities, was overcrowded — 218 new people had come in over the course of 13 years.

The underlying principle of the school was eugenics — the belief that people who exhibit superior functioning have superior DNA. The goal of Laconia State School was to isolate the “feeble-minded” people from the rest of society so they could not have children, which was believed would cause undesirable genetic characteristics to be passed down. In 1917, forced sterilization was authorized against people who exhibited undesirable characteristics.

During the Great Depression, overpopulation in the school increased. Parents sent their children to the school hoping that they would at least be fed, if nothing else. The state legislature repeatedly refused requests for additional funding for renovation, repairs, and expansion. No bedrooms existed. There was no room for personal possessions.

The “feeble-minded” of New Hampshire were simply cordoned off from the rest of society where they were largely ignored. As long as the rest of the state could pretend such people did not exist, then all was well.

Subsequently, after its closure in 1991, Laconia State School became a state prison called the Lakes Region Facility.

Today, a similar approach is being used in all four of Manchester’s public high schools. Rather than integrating disabled people into classrooms, they are pushed off to one side to do the best they can in whatever way they can manage. One persistent prevailing assumption appears to be those who struggle to speak also struggle to think. Medical science, however, does not bear this out.

Disabled students, even those who have no mental disabilities but only require physical accommodation, are given individualized education plans (IEP). While on paper, this may appear to be giving each student what they need, in practice, such plans create negative educational outcomes for those for whom it is meant to benefit.

In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court famously declared the “separate but equal” doctrine to be a violation of section one of the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution, which states:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The same argument which caused schools to be de-segregated on the basis of race could also be used to de-segregate schools on the basis of disability. Separate accommodations, it has long since been established, are not equal accommodations.

Every research finding over the last 40 years on this topic has discovered that integrated classrooms produce better outcomes for all concerned. Integration assumes each student has the capability to keep up with the demands of the courses. Segregation assumes students with disabilities, by default, are incapable of learning as well as students without disabilities. The result is an inequitable, unfair situation in which disabilities themselves become stigmatized, rather than accepted as just another part of life.

For the sake of comparison, separating a disabled student from all others makes about as much sense as separating left-handed students from right-handed students. One may presume all left-handed students are incapable of writing as well as any others, yet without giving them the chance to demonstrate their skill, no one will know for sure.

After graduating high school, a young person is meant to know how to function independently in society. They are meant to know how to work at entry-level jobs, perform mathematics, read and write, and have some knowledge of history and politics. A key component of the high school experience is also socialization- the ability to cooperate with others in order to achieve a desired goal. Segregating students with disabilities deprives them of the opportunity to learn how to cooperate with others- an opportunity all other students have. They are never given the opportunity to challenge themselves for the purpose of self-improvement.

The world outside of high school, after all, rarely lets people take things at their own pace. Nor are there many places where a person with disabilities can continually go off by themselves to experience life on their own pace, however they see fit. Educational segregation, in this way, prepares disabled students for a world which doesn’t exist.

There is where an organization called Able NH steps in. Their goal is a simple one: parents need to be educated as to the rights of their children, many of which are abrogated during the process of education. Working parents, more often than not, do not have the time or energy to research what they need to know in order to go before a school board or administrative body in order to correct any issue they may find concerning.

This is true even more so for parents of disabled children. Disabilities such as autism aren’t planned for. Many such disabilities are not detectable during pregnancy. Even while a child is very young, disabilities may not appear or be obvious. When they do make themselves known, parents have a whole new set of challenges to deal with, in addition to raising and providing for a child- a difficult enough task by itself.

As a result, when an educator, be they a teacher or administrator, claims a disabled child needs individualized education, parents are likely to trust the educators. That’s their job, after all. Segregation largely depends on educators taking advantage of a lack of knowledge about what best practices are, what the research says, and how to obtain the best educational outcomes.

Even worse, parents, teachers, and paraprofessionals are hesitant to advocate for their children. They fear retaliation in response to speaking up. Children have been known to be retaliated against after parents expressed their concerns. This is often done in subtle, yet deliberate, ways.

In order to correct this trend, leadership at all levels must make a concerted effort towards integration. These include, but are not limited to, the teacher’s union, the principal’s union, the superintendents, the school board, the mayor’s office, and local employers. A person with a disability is not intrinsically worth less an individual than a person without one. Each student should ideally be guided towards becoming the best version of themselves they can become.

Pushing disabled students off into rooms by themselves is the modern-day equivalent of the Laconia State School’s practices from the last century. It is a way of not seeing the individual humanity in each disabled student and instead classifying them based on conditions they never asked for. It is a way of doing what’s easy for the majority, rather than what’s best for everyone.

The problem, for now, is not so easy to solve. Until integration in high schools across New Hampshire become a reality, Able NH will continue advocating on behalf of disabled students who are segregated, separated, and retaliated against. The good news is, the situation can only get better from here.

The Manchester Chapter of Able NH meets on the second Tuesday of every month at the Manchester Public Library at 7 PM.

About this Author

Winter Trabex

Winter Trabex is a freelance writer from Manchester and regular contributor to Community Voices.