The same year that Congress passed a sweeping new mandate on special education, Tai C. Du was born in Vietnam. Since then, the two have traveled a long road together.
One of 13 children, Tai was diagnosed with progressive polio as a child. After fleeing Vietnam by boat in 1978 and enduring time in a Taiwanese refugee camp, Tai and his family emigrated to the United States. There, the youngster faced the challenge of not only attending a public school where he did not know the native language, but also of contending with a physical disability.
In 1981, at age 6, Tai entered the Johnson School for the Developmentally Disabled in Oklahoma City. At the time, no one in his family could speak English. For that reason, they could not explain that Tai did not suffer from a mental disability, unlike many of his fellow students at Johnson.
Reflecting on his early years, Mr. Du now says he feels the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act had little impact on his schooling even as he credits it with opening doors for countless other children with disabilities. Today, he credits individual teachers and administrators with helping change his life for the better.
Luckily, the special education teachers at Johnson were the first in a long line of instructors who went out of their way to help him. “They recognized immediately that I should not have been placed there, and mind you, they didn’t have to,” he said in a recent interview.
The teachers revamped their lesson plans to meet Tai’s needs. The other students in the school were required to take naps throughout the day; teachers used that time to give Tai one-on-one instruction. “During that time, we would work on everything from me teaching them origami to them teaching me math, English, and grammar,” Mr. Du said.
Even though polio had drastically impaired Tai’s ability to walk, neither the Oklahoma City schools nor Medicaid would pay for a wheelchair for him, he said, so his teachers gave him a chair on wheels that he would jump on and use to propel himself around the school using his foot or his hands. “I look back on it, and I think it is so amazing,” he said.
Near the end of that first school year, Tai underwent developmental testing. He began going to Western Heights Elementary School, the neighborhood school his older sister attended, the following year.
When he started the year at Western Heights, Tai was still learning English, and he was placed in the lowest-level reading group. By the end of the year, he had worked his way up to the most advanced reading group.
Western Heights was a three- story school, and because of the way his leg brace was locked into place, navigating stairs was difficult. To accommodate his special needs, the principal of the school had the maintenance staff install spokes into the rails of the stairways, and they gave Tai a small hammer. He used the claw of the hammer to hook onto the spokes and propel himself up the stairs, and the ball of the hammer to unlock his leg brace.
“The accommodations came from people who cared about me rather than the school system,” he said. “Whether for good or for bad, I think I was really lucky to have met those people and for them to have taken such an interest in me.”
Today, Mr. Du singles out Bonnie Wood, his teacher in gifted-and-talented education from 7th to 10th grade, for making a huge difference in his life. “Without her, I would have never embraced my disability; I would never have embraced my uniqueness,” he said.
During the summer after his 10th grade year, Tai’s parents were busy trying to make a living, and Tai did not have transportation to his driver’s education classes. Ms. Wood, who lived 30 minutes away from Tai, woke up every morning at the crack of dawn to drive him to school. “She knew that ... driving was crucial to my independence,” he said.
But one thing has haunted him for years about his experiences in the early days of the IDEA.
Other special education students in his high school, he said, were isolated from the rest of the students. “They were mainstreamed because of the IDEA, but they were in a separate section of my high school, never to be seen,” he said.
Mr. Du, who went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northern Arizona University and Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., respectively, is now the community-affairs manager for Halftheplanet.com, an online Internet resource for people with disabilities, based in Washington.
“Looking at my life, I know that I am here for a reason,” he said. “I know it’s for a pretty significant reason in terms of helping other people with disabilities.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as ‘I Know That I Am Here for a Reason’