Stacy Snider learned the hard way how painful being different can be.
"I don't know why God didn't give me a better brain," she said. "I don't know why I have to be different."
Snider, 28, has a learning disability. She struggles to express herself.
"I know what I want to say, but I have a hard time putting words in the right order," she said.
"It's like if the word I'm trying to think of is refrigerator, I don't see a refrigerator, I see a kitchen," Snider said. "So I might say ketchup when I mean refrigerator."
She has trouble adding and subtracting. Reading, too, is difficult.
"I know people think I'm dumb," Snider said. "I've seen them staring at me, making comments about me behind my back. I want them to know it hurts. I want them to be nice to me and to other people with disabilities."
Despite her hardships, Snider cleans houses and works part-time in the kitchen shared by Sunflower School and Southwest Junior High School. She and her husband, Troy, have two children, Michael, 5, and Elizabeth, 3.
Troy Snider, 31, manages the Taco Bell at 1101 W. Sixth St.
"I didn't think I would ever get married," Stacy Snider said. "I didn't think anybody would ever want me. I'm glad he picked me to be his wife."
The Sniders - he grew up down the street from her - dated for five years. They've been married for almost six years.
"Our marriage really isn't that much different from any other marriage," said Troy Snider, a 1993 graduate of Lawrence High School.
"It can be frustrating at times because you can't win an argument with her, even when you know you're right, because she can't understand what you're saying," he said. "All you can do is put a smile on your face and do the best you can. That's my philosophy: Accept people for who they are."
Stacy Snider hasn't had it easy. Born in Illinois, she quickly entered the state's foster care system.
"She left the hospital on Day 3, she returned on Day 10 in a coma," said Snider's adoptive mother, Jessie Randtke. "She had been totally deprived of nutrition, and her hygiene had been neglected. The flesh around her diaper area was raw; it looked like burned, blackened flesh. I'll never forget it.
"The doctor said she had every excuse to die."
Randtke and her husband, Stephen, a civil engineering professor at Kansas University, moved their family - they also have three sons - to Lawrence in 1983.
Jessie Randtke praised the efforts of Lawrence special education teachers Cece Ruder and Judy Condra, and Jim Rome, then a fourth-grade teacher at Douglas County Christian School. But after sixth grade, the Randtkes decided to home-school their daughter.
The school yard teasing, she said, had become unbearable.
"I always used to ask my kids, 'What was the best thing that happened at school today? And what was the worst?' because if you just say 'What happened at school today?' they'll just say 'Nothing.'" Randtke said.
"But with Stacy it got to the point where I'd only ask about the best things because the worst got to be too painful," she said. "A lot of days, the best thing was 'Somebody talked to me on the playground,' or 'Nobody picked on me.'"
That was 15 years ago. But the pain, Snider said, hasn't gone away.
"It's with me every day," she said.
Finding her way
When she turned 18, the Randtkes agreed to stop home-schooling their daughter if she found a job.
"My dad helped me put together a presentation that said, 'I'm Stacy Snider, I have a learning disability, but I'm a good worker and if you hire me, I'll work really hard,'" she said.
"I got a job."
Snider sacked groceries for the next five years. She continued to live with her parents.
Most young adults with one or more disabilities aren't as fortunate.
"I would say she's an exception," said Dave Test, an investigator with Charlotte, N.C.-based National Secondary Transition Technological Center.
Recent studies, he said, have found that 75 percent of students who've exited high school special education programs live with their parents, 90 percent are single and 70 percent find work at some point within two years after graduating.
"A lot depends on the disability and the level of severity," Test said. " Kids with a learning disability tend to do better than those with mental retardation, and those with mental retardation tend to do better than those with emotional or behavior disorders."
Post-graduation options in Lawrence typically include employment, job training or applying for an opening at Cottonwood Inc.
In Kansas, when special education students turn 14, their teachers are required to come up with "transition plans," aimed at setting and achieving post-graduation goals. Students may remain in school until they are 21.
How many of these goals are actually met isn't known.
"We don't have a system in place to track outcomes," said Wendy Blaauw, a program consultant for student support services at the Kansas Department of Education.
Though the federal government has required states to make sure each special education student has a transition plan, states were not required to measure the plans' effectiveness.
"Tracking these kinds of trends - where people go, what works, what doesn't work as well, and what types of disabilities we're talking about - tends to be very difficult once they leave the public school system," said Michael Wehmeyer, director at the Center for Developmental Disabilities within the Schiefelbusch Institute or Life Span Studies at Kansas University.
Still, he said, studies have shown today's graduates are faring better than their predecessors.
"Progress has been made," Wehmeyer said, "but the overall outcomes are still not as positive as one would hope."
No taunting allowed
Snider said she fears children with disabilities still are being picked on.
They may be, but Lawrence school officials say there's considerably less torment today than there was 15 years ago.
"We don't tolerate taunting or bullying," said Bruce Passman, executive director of student services for Lawrence schools. "That's not to say it doesn't happen - we don't have complete control over everything that happens in schools anymore than the community has complete control over everything that happens outside schools.
"But a lot of positive things have transpired in the past 15 years," he said.
The district has about 2,000 special education students. Last year 141 graduated.
Passman said school curricula include sections on understanding and accepting differences in others. Teachers and staff are expected to reprimand students caught bullying or teasing.
And most children with disabilities - "98 to 99 percent," he said - are integrated into the regular classroom.
"We feel very strongly that having students with disabilities in the regular classroom is beneficial to them and to those who don't have disabilities," Passman said. "It helps them learn about and relate to kids who are different from themselves."
Rome, one of Snider's favorite teachers, now teaches first grade at New York School.
"I don't see a lot of teasing. When I do, I address it," he said. "I think it still goes on; kids can be pretty clever when there isn't an authority figure around. But if I see it or if it's called to my attention, it won't be tolerated. It's totally against school rules."
Now in his 33rd year of teaching, Rome said there is considerably less taunting today than there was when Snider was in school.
"I've had autistic children in class who were very different, obviously, and yet I've seen kids reach out to them and be extra thoughtful toward them," he said.
Denise Gossage's 18-year-old son, Frank, recently graduated from the school district's special education program. She agreed there's less teasing and that teachers are quick to stop it.
The problem now, she said, lies with the children's parents.
"I did not witness teasing," she said, "but I have witnessed a reluctance on the part of parents of so-called normal children to let their children play or interact with children who have a disability. Just because there's less teasing doesn't mean there's more interaction."
Snider is doing what she can to fix that.
"I always say hi to special needs kids when I see them," Snider said. "I want them to know there's someone who cares about them and that someone's thinking about them. I don't want them to give up."