Stacy Tucker decided she’d had enough.
She was tired of the awkward stares and giggles, of having people tell her what she couldn’t do, of being treated as less than human.
The fight the 35-year-old Lawrence woman has entered into isn’t glamorous. There’s no certainty it will make a difference. But it’s everything to her.
Tucker was born with severe learning disabilities, impeding her ability to read, spell or do math. She never got to reach her dream of going to college or becoming a teacher.
But she persevered, had two beautiful children, got married. At home, she’s Mom, or Stacy.
Everywhere else, it seems, she’s still treated like an “other.”
As a person with a disability, it’s hard not to notice the pointing, the whispers, the laughter. She’s been dealing with it since she was a child, and it doesn’t seem to have gotten better.
People can be cruel, yes, but is there something more to it? How much does the public really know about the challenges people with disabilities endure on a daily basis?
Tucker set out to tell them. She began to write, in longhand, with her husband transcribing her words on a computer. She wanted something she could show people she met, to not only introduce them to her and her disability but to the struggles of millions of people like her. A magazine for parents of disabled children published one of her articles in 2007; it printed a second earlier this summer.
Tucker just wants to be treated the same as everyone else, to have people say, “Hi, how are you?” rather than stare or ask what’s wrong. She’s willing to bring her message anywhere (“I’ll go to Washington or the White House if I have to,” she says), to tell anyone who will listen about the bigotry people with disabilities still face every day — and how it needs to change.
“It’s finally time to get the word out,” said Tucker, whose personality is a mix of innocent and vivacious, on a recent day in her Lawrence mobile home, her family by her side. “It’s time to change the world, as Dr. Martin Luther King said. It’s time to sit in the front of the bus!”
A history of segregation
People with disabilities have faced discrimination going back generations, from ridicule and ostracization to downright violence and abuse. Advocates for disabled people eventually helped to make the public more aware of their struggles, helping to get anti-discrimination legislation passed in Congress. Their efforts culminated with 1990’s Americans with Disabilities Act, which required public accommodations and equal opportunity to employment. But people with disabilities have continued to struggle with social acceptance.
“There’s probably more awareness of disabilities than ever before in the history of time. There are lots of legal protections in place that ensure free access to education and no discrimination,” said Michael Wehmeyer, professor of special education and director of the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities. “And still the general public has limited interaction with people with disabilities.”
Things are at least moving in the right direction. In the past, people with disabilities were segregated, in institutions or separate schools and classrooms. However, a new generation of Americans is being brought up in a different world.
Federal statute now requires that students with disabilities be placed in the least restrictive environment possible. And legislation passed in Kansas four years ago compels schools to incorporate lessons about disability history and awareness into their curriculums. How each of these laws is interpreted is left up to the individual school district.
“It’s our belief that every one of our students should be taught in a neighborhood school with their peers as much as possible,” remarked Kevin Harrell, director of student intervention services for Lawrence public schools, who said he plans to share Tucker’s recent article with his principals and staff. “Then they go through school together, and relationships are developed.”
For an example of the positive outcomes that can result from this policy, he cited what happened at Free State High School a few years ago, when special-needs students were left off the homecoming court ballot. Their classmates circulated a petition to have them added to it and went on to elect Owen Phariss, a student with Down syndrome, as their homecoming king.
“People with disabilities are probably more different from each other than they are similar,” said Stacey Hunter Schwartz, executive director of Lawrence-based Independence Inc. “I think if more people would take the time to get to know individuals with disabilities and get to know these people as individuals, everyone would learn more about how to maximize the contributions that everyone can make to society.”
Tucker’s son is another example of just how much things have changed.
Like his mom, Michael also has learning disabilities, struggling with spelling and reading. Asked whether he ever gets bullied, the 11-year-old said he doesn’t, and that his friends would step in and defend him if it ever started. His mom, on the other hand, was teased so badly in class that she had to drop out and finish her schooling at home.
Travis Bissell knows where Tucker is coming from.
The 26-year-old from Lawrence believes his learning disability has prevented him from being able to reach his goals. He wants to become a prep cook but has been discouraged from trying by employers and social workers alike.
Bissell, who works with Tucker at Lawrence’s Presbyterian Manor, had always preferred to keep his disability a secret, wanting his accomplishments to be judged on their own merits. He was afraid he’d be put into a separate category, that people would be even more likely to pass him over for opportunities if they knew the truth. So Bissell chose to remain in his shell, figuring no one would understand what he was going through anyway. Then he read Tucker’s recent article, which inspired him to start letting his voice be heard.
“I want people to treat disabled people the same way they would somebody who doesn’t have a disability. We’re all people here,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re like me — have a learning disability — or can’t walk. It goes the same for everybody. Everybody’s kind of judging disabled people in general without getting to know them first.”
Tucker has heard encouragement from other disabled people, who, like Bissell, let her know she’s spot on, that she’s saying what they’ve been scared to say. Some of their family members have told her they had no idea what their loved ones were going through. She believes many people with disabilities internalize their mistreatment, allowing it to fester.
Even if Tucker doesn’t end up changing the world, her advocacy has made her more confident than she’s ever been, like she’s finally found her purpose. She seems genuinely excited, wanting to share her thoughts with whoever is around, her enthusiasm bubbling over. And to think, she said, all she ever wanted to do in life was be teacher.
But isn’t that what she’s doing now, in the truest sense? “I want to educate the world,” she said.
— Reporter Giles Bruce can be reached at 832-7233. Follow him at Twitter.com/GilesBruce