Unsilenced: A Teacher's Year of Battles and Breakthroughs (Ep 159)

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If you’ve ever wondered if you can really make a difference as a teacher or if you’re a parent who feels defeated by how archaic Special Education feels, you need to hear this teacher’s story through his memoir...

Unsilenced: A Teacher’s Year of Battles, Breakthroughs, and Life-Changing Lessons at Belchertown State School 

It will fuel you for what is possible for where we are now in our school system and how your big dreams of change are possible.

From the Publisher: A stirring and spellbinding memoir from internationally renowned AAC expert Howard Shane (Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School), Unsilenced is a candid look at a pivotal era in disability history and a deeply personal account of how all human beings can flourish when we care for each other and fight for change. 

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Transcript Summary

I've got a new book for you this week on the Special Education Inner Circle podcast. I'm your host, Catherine Whitcher, and this book is important for both parents and teachers. The name of the book is "Unsilenced", A Teacher's Year of Battles, Breakthroughs, and Life Changing Lessons at Belchertown State School. 

If you as a teacher have ever felt like you've had to choose between speaking up for your students and keeping your job, you are going to appreciate the journey that the author of Unsilenced has had. His name is Howard Shane and he has some amazing stories about how he started as a teacher, the impact that he made, and you're not going to believe where he's at now. For parents who are thinking, Gosh, why does this have to be so hard? This should be easier in special education to work on things like inclusion or assistive technology or just making sure that your child is not segregated separately from the rest of the school. 



This is a conversation that we need to keep on having. And when you read Unsilenced, it helps you put it in perspective about how far we've come, but yet how far we have to go. And I know that these things, but it's important for us to learn from those who have come before us. So yes, we have work to do, but if you learn what has happened in the past, it can help fuel you on how to create change for the future. So let me go ahead and just read the back of the book here, and then I'm going to give you a couple of just the summary of what happened in this book is you're going to say yes, and if you're like, Yes, we need more of this, go ahead and pick up Unsilenced. I promise you it is worth your time to read. Okay, so here, here's a little bit about the book. 



The year is 1969 and fresh out of college, Howard Shane has just landed his first teaching job at Belchertown State School, a bleak institution where people with disabilities endure endless days of silence, tedium, and neglect. 

That doesn't sound so exciting right now. Okay? Right. I promise you that's just the starting point. The starting point of he's talking about the late sixties, the seventies. And I talk about this sometimes because I don't think that we realize as parents and teachers that we are not that far into special education as we know it today. So I talk about how my brother, who is 45 with Down Syndrome, is the first generation of fully educated adults with disabilities. This is important. Okay? 

This is important because the law was enacted in 1975, which means that it was teachers like Howard Shane who wrote this book who helped build special education, and they did not have special education degrees. And if you look around your special education department, you are probably going to find educators and administrators who experienced this era of education. They experience the era of having unqualified teachers with no experience because special education never existed with any widely used rules or regulations before 1975.



Teachers had no specific training in working in the disability community, and they had to build up to what we have now. In the meantime, we go and we get some university programs. We get all the supports through the medical system and educational system on lots of different levels. We get the internet, we get Google. So now we can figure out a lot more information quicker. We can do all these things, but we're not that far from where we were in 1969, in 1970, when Howard Shane, who wrote this book, was experiencing a state institution. 

We're actually not that far from state institutions as the author explains in the book. So it's important for you to know as a teacher and a parent, you have to keep on talking and having conversations of what needs to happen next. You need to be able to sometimes be able to ask for forgiveness instead of permission. 



That's one of my favorite things to say. And Howard Shane says that in his book, and I'll share with you the situation. Now, I want to encourage you that I'm not telling anybody to break rules that are going to put any child in harm's way, but the author describes the situation, and this is all real life. This is his memoir, this real life. He's working at this residential school, which was then called a State Institution. And the students were not allowed for the most part to go off campus, but there were some students that had permission to go on field trips. Now, there was a school dance that was going to be happening nearby, and the students in his classroom, they were not allowed to go specifically to the dance, but they were allowed to go on field trips. Did you guys see the loophole here? Okay. So he figured out how to make the field trip into a trip to the dance. 



So instead of asking for permission of “are these students allowed to go to the dance”, he instead made it a field trip, which then it was following the rules. It was just a little bit different way of following the rules. And so he takes his students to this dance and the administrator comes in and is like, What is going on? I don't get in. He's like, Well, we're on a field trip. 

And she's like, I don't understand. Your students are not going to enjoy this. They're in wheelchairs. They cannot dance. They are nonverbal. They cannot have communication and relationships. They are sensitive to all the noise and the chaos. They're not going to enjoy this. But yet, when he showed her and had them, had her look around, the students were doing great, They were having a wonderful time at the dance. So he was able to break that boundary by still following the rules, just finding 



A little bit of a loophole, and he was able to make this happen. We see this happen all the time currently in special education. We see where we have to find the openings in our education system and in our communities and say, this is possible. Howard Shane, as that teacher in the 1970s, he was pushing the boundaries and he has turned into an extremely effective leader in the disability community who has developed many, many, many computer programs and assistive technology. He has had lifelong friendships with his students whom he first met back in 1970. He has worked with some famous people in the disability community. I'm not telling you who they are. You're going to have to go get the book. Here's what else I love about this book. In the back, there are discussion questions that make us think. And really what they can be is that catalyst for conversations that we often avoid in our communication as parents and teachers, because sometimes it can cause conflict, or we only have the conversations around IEP time. 



We leave these conversations for discussing how are we going to build an IEP that is inclusive instead of having these conversations ongoing. So let me read just a couple of these discussion questions, and I want you to go ahead and use these as conversation points for working together as teachers and parents because we have so many more boundaries that we need to stretch, that we need to break, and we can do that together even when it gets a little uncomfortable. So let me go ahead and read this first discussion question. 

In this memoir, Howard Shane describes the institution system of the late 1960s and seventies. He points out that these places existed because societal norms of that era were based on separation and segregation of people with disabilities. Compare and contrast how the philosophy of that era relates to our treatment of individuals with disabilities today, What has changed and what still needs to be changed. 



So this is taking out the emotion of what's happening in your specific situation when it comes to inclusion and really broadening your perspective of like, Okay, this is how it was, this is how we got through some of those situations. And that's what this book Unsilenced can do. It can really help you just stretch your own thinking on what you can do to help create change, both inside of the school system and outside of the school system. I'm going to read another one here too. So it's at Belchertown, there were two people in the system in that institution system that were rule bound antagonists who show little compassion and refuse to embrace change. 



While there were two other people that were at the institute that showed genuine care and concern for the residents. Since all of these staff members are products of the same era, how would you account for the differences in their attitudes, behavior, and practices? 


We have that right now. We have some people that are straight-out rule followers, and then we have people that are like, Well, maybe we could bend the rules just a little bit and see what else is possible. And what's interesting is when I look at the rule followers, it's not always that there's malicious intent of like, No, this is the rule. I don't care if it's harmful for a student. Many of the times, people who are rule followers say the rules who are here for a reason and they're helpful to everyone. But this is where we need to bring in that other side of the conversation. 



You may not be the rule follower. Maybe you are the one who stretches those boundaries and you're following the rules, but maybe you're following the rules, not exactly how they were written, kind of that field trip that I just described. So it's important for you to have conversations and acknowledge like, okay, there are people that you're going to encounter that are rule followers. There are other people that are willing to stretch that. How do we get everybody to get on the same page in certain situations to move forward and create inclusive schools? So then we can have inclusive communities? 

We know that if we have more inclusive schools, we will have more inclusive communities. Yet again, here we are. I want you to think about it. My brother and I are in our forties. Inclusion was not a thing back in the seventies. 



So he's living his best life in Florida in a retirement village with my mom. But inclusion is still very new there. What are we going to do now in our generation, in the schools right now so that things are not so awkward when our children with disabilities grow up and are now part of the community? 

How are we going to take the rule followers and how are we going to take the boundary breakers, how are we going to put them together so we can build something? It is possible. 

I also, I want to read one more discussion question here for you. Let's see. In this epilogue, Howard reflects on the profound impact his student Ron had on his life. How was Ron instrumental in fostering the author's personal and professional growth? And then how did Howard help change the course of Ron's life and return? 

Here's the thing, this book talks a lot about relationships between teacher and student and community, and then it talks about developing tools and strategies and new 



innovations. All of this stemmed from a brand new, I'm going to say kid, right? He was probably 22, right? Brand new kid outta college, experiencing something that he knew in his gut, he knew in his heart was not in the best interest of the children. And then he used his skills, his intellectual skills to build something better. And we all have that opportunity. So again, I just gave you a little taste of what's inside this book. I'm sure you can tell I'm pretty fired up about it. It has reignited in me what is possible, that we're not stuck when we think we're stuck. We just need to look at things from a different avenue. That there are opportunities both inside of the school system and outside of the school system for us to work together to create change. I'm going to leave you with one last thing that's here and it says, Oh, let me flip to this page here. 



The next generation of professionals, parents, and self-advocates will need to work hard to maintain and expand on our current ideological position, which supports the right of all people with disabilities to live, work, and socialize in typical ways within society. We need to put our collective shoulders against that invisible pendulum so that it can't ever swing back, can't reverse the arc of freedom and dignity We've been working so hard to achieve. We've come so far and we still have far to go. I have hope that together we can achieve true equity and inclusion for all. And I am confident that our continued march of progress will be led by people much like my smart, creative, and determined students at Belchertown State School, unsilenced and empowered. Now, they will use their voices, whether biological or computer generated, to speak loud and clear for themselves. 



I encourage you, go pick up the book "Unsilenced". Make sure that you leave a five star review. If you're listening on Apple Podcast, if you're watching this, please leave a comment underneath this video. Share it with somebody who needs to know that there is hope inside of our school system of parents and teachers and admins and therapists all working together to break these boundaries. And of course, if you have any questions, just go ahead and reach out. I'll see you guys next time on the Special Education Inner Circle Podcast.

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