March 8th is International Women’s Day.
Living in a time when women are free, powerful, and influential, it’s difficult to conceive how hard women had to work to carve a path for themselves in the world.
Women authors hid their names behind male pseudonyms and initials. Bank accounts were in their husband’s name. The only honorable and recognized profession was that of a teacher.
The women I am honoring have not only changed the face of special education but have also had an enormous influence over the woman I am today. Some of these women are from the past, but three continue to create great change today.
For these women, I am forever grateful as I journey through this life both as mother and teacher of a child with special needs.
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1- Anne Sullivan: I became fascinated with the Helen Keller story in the third grade. As much as Helen herself was remarkable, I was enthralled with the woman who patiently and ingeniously taught her. Anne Sullivan, who lost her sight at a young age, could not read or write until she attended a school for the blind and learned the manual alphabet. She eventually became Helen Keller’s teacher where she met Helen right where she was. Rather than enforcing learning in the way it was taught at the time, Anne found that helping Helen build vocabulary based on things that were meaningful to her was a much more successful approach. She homeschooled Helen until she convinced Helen’s parents to send her to school at the age of 16, where she accompanied Helen as her interpreter.
2- Helen Keller: When I was in 8 years old, I could not understand how a person could live without sight, hearing or the ability to speak. I blindfolded myself and plugged my ears to try to put myself in her shoes for just a moment. This is why all of Helen Keller’s achievements captivated me. I learned the manual alphabet and tried relentlessly to learn the Braille alphabet (I never mastered it). Her dedication to helping to improve the lives of others in the deaf-blind community makes her an extraordinary woman.
3- Maria Montessori: Maria Montessori focused on the importance of natural learning and specially prepared learning environments for early childhood education. She often spoke of the child’s innate and unique potential as needing to be drawn forth, rather than imposing education upon them. She is renown for the Montessori Method of education started in schools in Italy in the 1900s and is still used around the world today. While working with mentally ill patients in an asylum, Dr. Montessori grew interested in children who were considered to be “unteachable.” Using her approach, she found that she was able to teach reading and math to these children where the scores were even higher than typically developing children. Today, many homeschoolers, including those of children with special needs, use the Montessori Method for its hands-on, sensory-rich, life skills building approach.
4- Jean Little: A Canadian children’s author who is partially blind, has written many popular novels that got me hooked on reading as a young girl. The genuinely heart-rending stories include From Anna, Mine for Keeps, and Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird. As a teacher, I also read her autobiographies: Little by Little and Stars Come Out Within (the sequel). In fact, I read the first one aloud to my students while they clamored over the copy of the sequel when I was done. Jean is being honored on this list as the author who teaches resilience to children through stories that touch on very poignant, but very real events such as abuse, illnesses, and death. Her books about characters living with disabilities brought to light how these individuals were treated and regarded in society. Bringing these stories into classrooms shaped discussions like no other books could. As a young student myself, I was moved by her work. As a mother and teacher of a child with special needs, I am indebted to her.
5- Temple Grandin: No other person living today is as influential a teacher of those living on the Autism spectrum than the great Temple Grandin. Through her messages, Temple teaches parents and teachers how to reach individuals diagnosed with Autism. She sheds light on her experiences growing up and articulates how those with Autism see the world. In reading her works (The Autistic Brain and Thinking in Pictures), I have learned not only how to approach individuals with Autism, but also, how to better reach my son (who is not on the spectrum). I am forever grateful for her insights into a world many of us cannot fully understand.
6– Rachel Coleman: As the co-creator of the popular Signing Time series of ASL videos, I honor Rachel Coleman as a leader in innovation for solving a problem that once existed for families of children with special needs. When she discovered that her daughter was deaf, Rachel looked for a solution to help family and friends learn the language of her daughter: American Sign Language (ASL). From one video grew an empire of DVDs, CDs, books and digital versions to help parents and teachers teach their babies, toddlers and children the ASL language. Two Little Hands Productions reaches daycares, schools and homeschools alike with the message that learning can be fun, hands-on, universal, and that ASL is not for the deaf community alone! I don’t know where we’d be without Rachel’s catchy songs and vocabulary-building board books.
Who are the women you are honoring today who have changed they way you view special needs education?