Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

A life she never dared dream of

Special-needs students still have rough road

July 22, 2006


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."

Finding success

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.

Unmeasured results

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."


james bush 11 years, 6 months ago

Thanks for the story, Dave. It sure makes one think....and makes an old man a little teary. What great people the Randtkes must be. Not many of us have their compassion for others who are in need of our help and friendship or love. The Sniders are inspirational......God bless that family.

Morgss 11 years, 6 months ago

Stacy, Life can throw some hard roads in front of youth, your early roads were horrible. Parenthood is not an easy task, nor working on a good marriage. You have more than mastered these two key parts of living a happy life, and by golly you deserve it. Take a deep breath, pat yourself on the back, you have made it! What a wonderful story.

justsomewench 11 years, 6 months ago

my 12 year old daughter is much like stacy and it does my heart good to see such a happy ending. stacy is a true hero for never giving up her dreams through a lifetime of adversity as are the randtke's for their patience, love, and support. congratulations to all!

satchel 11 years, 6 months ago

Before my son was diagnosed with autism, I too was reluctant to engage with someone who had a disability, out of awkwardness.

Now that I have someone close to me with autism, it has totally transformed my thinking, and obviously I am sad that I ever used to be that way.. I think if somehow we were out there with films, or in some way reaching the public with people who have disabilities, and letting the public know they are human and have tons of dignity and should be treated as everyone else, it could change things.

They too are made in the image of God and are extremely valuable as all human beings are.

satchel 11 years, 6 months ago

actually, since I have typical kiddos too, i must say that my one with autism, and my other one with aspergers are the most loving, innocent, sweet unique boys. I wouldn't want them to be 'normal' to be honest. It is great raising a child with a disability.. There are hard times when they don't understand things, but they are the sweetest boys and are much sweeter than a lot of typical kids I meet.

Christine Pennewell Davis 11 years, 6 months ago

I so do like stories like this it just makes you think there is hope for this world after all. Keep going stong stacy

jarandtke 11 years, 6 months ago

Stacy you are such a wonderful inspiration the world around you. When I met you for the first time I had no clue about your learning disability until your brother latter informed me. It has never halted our relationship from blossoming into a wonder friendship. You have even taught me many lessons over the years and I appreciate your help. I even appreciate you help when your brother and I had our first son. Your parenting skills are amazing and you have come a long way. You have been an inspiration not only to me but also too many others. I have always shared your wonderful story to the students I work with to give them encouragement! I am so proud to have you as a sister and good friend. Your brother, nephew and sister-in-law love you very much!

JHAWKGURL 11 years, 6 months ago

It sure is nice to see so many positive comments on here. Stacy, you are an inspiration. I am sure that your story alone has changed and inspired many people today. God Bless you and your family. I want to also say THANK YOU! You have changed me in way that you will never know.

Linda Aikins 11 years, 6 months ago

The Randtke's are awesome people. I know Steve. The post from her sister-in-law is how I'm sure they all feel. I am happy for you, Stacy.

Nice story.

John Hunter 11 years, 6 months ago

Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.

Matthew 25, 40

mitch 11 years, 6 months ago

I married an adult with a learning disability and she is one of the most intelligent, compassionate, and talented people I've ever met. Her disability was just one more obstacle to overcome in life. She even turned that to her advantage as it has helped her to be a better listener and show true caring for others.

catv904 11 years, 6 months ago

I am trying to find my cousin who had some what of a learning dissability as a child. She entered the foster care system when she was maybe 5 or so. Her name is Stacy S......... She should be in her early twenties. Last I heard someone seen her in Lawrence, her family is looking for her if any of you know her please comment back.

bearded_gnome 11 years, 6 months ago

I was so glad to see such an article in today's ljw!
nice going Stacy, just let your husband win a few of them arguments, to be fair.
seriously, thanks for allowing yourself to be publicized because you have helped lots of kids in similar circumstances, and adults who were "special needs" too.

MomMeg 11 years, 6 months ago

Stacy I can't say thank you enough for sharing your story. As the parent of a child with special needs, I often wonder what the future holds for her -- it is refreshing to read your story and know that just as you did, she can achive great things in her life and become a wife and mother.
You are truly an inspiration to children and adults alike -- God Bless You!!!!

Commenting has been disabled for this item.