They are considered “special” kids. Many have endured cruel teasing and ostracism from their classmates. For these handicapped children, life has been a difficult experience of dealing with wide-ranging emotions. Their experiences have given them and their families a special outlook on life and a sense of perspective that many lack.
Capistrano Valley High School has an active special education program, with about 75 students. Their handicaps range from mild learning disabilities to severe ones.
For juniors Lara Hill and Ed Lind, the difficulties of dealing with their handicaps are part of their lives.
She rides the halls of Capistrano Valley High in a wheelchair. But the wheelchair has not been with her all of her life. Lara Hill came home one day 4 years ago with a numbness in her left cheek and an inability to control her left foot. The next morning, she fell into a coma, and her mother rushed her to the hospital.
Suddenly, a healthy, athletic 12-year-old was diagnosed as having had a cerebral hemorrhage. She could no longer respond or react to stimuli.
“It just hits you like a ton of bricks,” said Hill’s stepfather, Stephen Thatcher. “Everything else in the world just becomes very unimportant.”
Patricia Hill, Lara’s mother, said she felt many emotions upon hearing the diagnosis: “Fear, pain, sadness and frustration mostly. You name an emotion and they (were) all there. It’s always frustrating when things don’t go the way you hoped or intended.”
Lara remained in a coma for 6 weeks. Doctors told Thatcher and his wife that Lara was probably not going to survive, but survive she did. When she came out of the coma, she was brought home.
Slowly, she began to react to her surroundings. “I was washing her mouth out, and she wasn’t swallowing,” Thatcher said. “In my frustration, as I walked out of the room I squirted water at her mother with the syringe, and Lara laughed! Slapstick made her laugh!
“I said if that worked, we could try some other things.”
Soon, Thatcher, Hill and Curt, Lara’s brother, began throwing pies at each other. Lara apparently understood their intentions before any throwing actually occurred.
“She started laughing before (Curt) was hit with the pie,” Thatcher said. “That meant that the thinking part of her brain wasn’t damaged. She was back with us intellectually.”
The coma and the damage to her brain did affect her motor nerves, however. That is why she rides in a wheelchair and can walk only with difficulty.
“Being handicapped and in a wheelchair might not be as fun as it looks,” Lara said. “Sure, the seat’s comfortable, and it’s fun having the right of way in the halls, but it’s tough.
“Why do people think it’s fun? I don’t think so. The problem that people fail to realize is that you’re in the chair all of the time, and it’s always there, no matter where you go.”
Before her illness, Lara was an exceptional athlete and constantly active. Realizing that she will probably never kick a soccer ball or run track again has been one of the hardest realities for her.
“It’s tough for her, she was such a great athlete,” Thatcher said. “She had a tremendous gift. She doesn’t often say much about it, but I know it really bothers her.”
Lara said her way of dealing with her inability to play is “not really watching (soccer games). That’s how I solve it.”
She was also a straight-A student. But after her hemorrhage, her grades dropped off.
“Her inability to write quickly holds her back,” Thatcher said.
But Lara is now up to a B average and is enrolled in just one special education class--a study hall type of class that allows her time for homework.
“Lara’s got a great sense of humor that has bridged the whole gap of her handicap,” said Karen Peterson, Lara’s special education teacher.
“She’s very assertive. She’s a tough kid and will definitely do well and be successful in whatever she wants to do.”
After her return home, Lara was enrolled for 3 months at the private Richard Henry Dana School for Children With Exceptional Needs. She re-entered public school by finishing up at Niguel Hills Junior High School, then enrolled at Capistrano Valley.
Lara said: “I felt like, ‘Wow, here I am!’ Also, I was a little scared.”
Attending such a large school has both advantages and disadvantages. “Capo has been a good place” overall, Lara’s mother said. “Sometimes it’s difficult because of the size, and that can be very intimidating if you’re sitting. She hasn’t gotten involved with other activities. The social life passes her by.”
Lara admitted to feeling alone at times in school but said it does not affect her too much. “At lunch, I go into the library,” she said.
But she is far from being without friends. One of them, junior Lisa Senkbeil, said: “She’s just like (any other) person, but she just has a physical disadvantage. I think (handicapped kids) should be involved with things kids their own ages are doing. They should not be isolated.”
For her future, Lara, who has just started to take equestrian lessons, remains optimistic. She hopes to become a child psychologist.
“I love children,” she said. “I want to go to UC Irvine, but I don’t know yet.”
The thought of being out on her own frightens her, but at the same time she looks forward to it.
“I love my parents a lot, but I think they can cope without me,” she said. “I’d like to live away. It’s a little bit scary because I can’t really take care of myself. My parents say I’m self-sufficient, so I guess I am. I don’t know.”
As students walk the Capistrano Valley hallways, many stop to greet Ed Lind.
“Making friends is easy,” said Ed, 17, who was diagnosed at age 2 as having a severe learning handicap.
"(The doctors) don’t know exactly how it happened,” said his mother, Donna Downs, who gave birth to a mentally gifted daughter 7 years before Ed’s birth.
“I explained to my daughter that God (had given) him to us because he could have given him to another person” who would not love or accept him, Downs said.
“Ed has a great insight into people. He’s very sensitive and caring. He has taught me a lot about people and understanding.”
Downs said the most difficult part of her son’s handicap has been other people.
“The hardest thing was dealing with other people’s reactions,” she said. “He didn’t have anybody to play with. That’s when the anger came in. The kids would call him mentally retarded, among other names.”
It was a harsh lesson in cruelty, which Ed learned at an early age. “Sometimes kids make fun of me, and I get upset,” he said.
“Sometimes I try my best and ignore them. But when I get upset, I want to fight. But it isn’t the right thing to do. I have a hard time when people call me names.”
Mike Degeer, Ed’s teacher at Capistrano Valley, said: “Ed is easygoing. He’s been picked on forever, and he’s developed some strategies to turn the other cheek. But after a while, these (special education) kids get numb to (teasing).”
Part of Ed’s patience and understanding comes from his faith in God.
“I have a good relationship with God,” he said. “If it wasn’t for God, I wouldn’t be going to school. I don’t know where I’d be. I’ve had some hard challenges in my life.”
Ed, who had a very limited vocabulary as a child, began his education at age 4 at a school for children who do not speak.
At Capistrano Valley, he is not mainstreamed into regular classrooms but remains in special education classes.
“Ed couldn’t even say the alphabet when he first came in 1 year ago,” Degeer said. “Now he talks in complete sentences.”
He is learning many new skills and is making progress but still can’t read or write.
“There’s big long words that I have a hard time sounding out,” Ed said. “I’m learning how to write my name in cursive. This is the first time I’ve learned how to cursive-write, and I like it. It’s pretty good.”
Ed, who enjoys bowling and listening to music, hopes to move out of his house after he graduates.
“I want to face the real world by myself, try to stay out of trouble and do the right things,” he said, adding that he would like to work as an automobile or motorcycle mechanic or in a fast-foods place.
His mother, however, is less optimistic: “The future looks scary. It’s not a matter of just moving out. It has to deal with balancing checkbooks. . . . How is the world going to treat him? He won’t have Mom and Dad to help him deal with it.”
Both Lara and Ed have accepted their limits and have learned to live with them through trial and error. They have found inner strength and have received support from family and friends.
Neither holds grudges nor feels bitterness. “I am a happy kid,” Ed said. “I’m not angry, not mad.”
“I’m not upset about it anymore,” Lara said. “It happened to me. I can’t change that. I’m sad about it, but I’m not mad at anybody. Nobody can change what happened to me.”