In the adored series, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRE, school was an important part of the lives of the Ingalls’ children. They carried their homemade lunch in buckets and ran, skipped, and dawdled their way to a little one-room schoolhouse. Together, with their siblings and other children who lived nearby, they learned the three “R’s” and to socialize. Raising six children of my own, who attended public schools, I can’t help but reflect on how important that school experience was in prairie days and continues today.

I would like to acknowledge and remind all of us that while the children were at school, the parents were not. We sent them to be cared for by other adults who had chosen teaching children as a profession. This formula allows parents to serve in other areas of our community and to earn the taxes necessary to proliferate a public school system.

Our school system today has improved in many ways, especially when it comes to inclusive programs. Not all the districts are functioning well, but we were blessed to live in one that shined. Today, my focus here is not to discuss woes of any kind caused by classroom size, district funding, diversity, violence, or curriculum; rather it is to celebrate the amazing men and women who made it possible for my severely disabled child to attend school with his peers, his siblings and his community.

When my son turned three, he miraculously became eligible for a tri-county preschool program. My other five children were not offered this, and I was astonished that it even existed. It was 1988, and we were living in a district that hadn’t even adopted a kindergarten program yet! I had to pay to send my 5th child to a private kindergarten.

We lived in the country, just down the hill from Mt. Hood. Each day, a van picked up my disabled son and drove him to Portland for a preschool program. The teacher was the proverbial Oregonian earth mother. Long, beechwood blonde hair, no makeup and loose woven clothing. She ran this program like any other preschool beginning with circle time, adding crafts, and recreation time. My son is nonverbal and completely strapped to a wheelchair with no voluntary movement possible, and yet, he was included and participated. I thank Judy Hoyt for this extraordinary experience.

Many of you may not be aware that the Judy is the mother of Rick Hoyt and ex-wife of Dick Hoyt. Rick and Dick are the famous marathon running father and son duo. Dick pushes Rick’s wheelchair for each and every marathon.  Judy fought extremely hard to include children with disabilities in the public school system. Due to the efforts of Judy and many other mothers, my child attended the same schools as his siblings and was accepted and loved by the community. I would say her “marathon” was more important!

When TJ turned five, we moved to the suburbs. If I desired, he still qualified for this tri-county program. I registered my other 5 children in the appropriate district public schools but hadn’t decided whether to put T.J. in the public elementary school or keep him in the county program.

Well, I could not decide until I visited the kindergarten program offered by the county. In one short visit, I was not only in tears, I was astonished and bewildered. The preschool program offered my son laughter, joy, and happy socialization and both classrooms were filled with children with varying disabilities, but in this new environment I was hearing, “NO, STOP, GO SIT DOWN…etc.” In that instant, I now witnessed children with disabilities that required constant supervision. Children with acute social anxiety and tendencies towards violence. I knew instantly that my son who passively sits in a wheelchair would be parked in a corner and ignored because he wasn’t a physical risk, a runner, or a threat to other children. He would no longer hear music or laughter but would hear anger and aggression.

I met one more time with the head of the county program. For some reason, the special education leader from the public school wanted to attend the meeting with me. She was actually recruiting me! She WANTED MY CHILD TO BE A PART OF THE PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM! She asked the questions, led the interview, and I sat back and watched in awe. It was beautiful. She asked questions I wouldn’t have had the knowledge to even ask. She questioned every magical program they promised and made them come clean on their pie in the sky proposals.

This was the beginning of 18 years of joyous public school attendance in the local school district. To this day, the experts who controlled the special education program are my favorite humans. Not all the “aids” who worked in his classrooms were amazing, or even good, actually. Some of them were mediocre and one of them I filed a restraining order on. As in all professions, some people shine and others just walk through their jobs in a trance.

It’s the teachers that don’t allow the stress and overwhelm to tarnish their goals and objectives for their inclusive classroom. I love good teachers; I also love good plumbers, good electricians, and good truck drivers. I have a few people who loved my son and chose teaching as a profession which  I greatly admire and appreciate. Yes! Kathy and Bruce and Pat, I mean you!


About René Steelman

“Find the Strength in Your Solutions, Not Your Struggles.”

Award-winning interior designer, René Steelman knows quite a bit about tilting the balance towards solutions rather than struggles.

“Designing our lives and careers is so important because chaos is so hard.”

This is true in our living rooms, as well as living in general! Life doesn’t always turn out like we plan. Sometimes, a curve is thrown our way that mixes up the balance of our lives or careers. Sometimes those changes are jarring. They require us to take charge of our own lives in ways we didn’t expect.

As an active philanthropist and founder of Steelman Family Foundation, René strives to provide as many families as possible with wheelchair accessible vans. Partnered with United Access, SFF has contributed more than 30 vans since 2016 to families around the country, holding true to their mission, helping “Families who Roll.”

As professional speaker, author of Heaven Sent and Bent and cerebral palsy advocate, René Steelman leads audiences to sift through the challenges and strip down life’s priorities to discover and experience joyful moments. Through humor, compassion, and a take-charge attitude, René shares skills and solutions to cope, survive, live, and thrive during life’s unexpected and overwhelming circumstances.

When not traveling the country speaking or promoting SFF, René spends time with her husband, six children and many grandchildren. Around the clock, with great support, and her family, she cares for her adult son, TJ, who has cerebral palsy.  To reenergize for her next mission, she sips umbrella drinks by the pool counting her blessings. Contact René for your next event or to inquire about sponsoring a family in need.