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Teacher finds special success

Telegram & Gazette
Wednesday, May 27, 1998

‘Many schools try to give the children as little as possible. We were very concerned. But when we first brought Eric and Aaron here, we could see the Sue saw them first as little boys rather than children with special needs.’ PARENT RICHARD BISSELL

Teacher Susan M. McCullen works with Eric and Aaron Bissell during a preschool class. Photo by Mike Castagnaro
Teacher Susan M. McCullen works with Eric and Aaron Bissell during a preschool class. Photo by Mike Castagnaro

By Chris Sinacola
Telegram & Gazette Staff

GRAFTON – The fact of the matter is that Susan M. McCullen did not have to turn Eric Bissell’s walker into a “bulldozer,” to the delight of all the children in her preschool class.

But she did.

Nor did McCullen absolutely have to make sure that Eric and his brother, Aaron, took part in every class trip, such as over to the South Grafton fire station, and see that they climbed into the driver’s seat of the pumper truck like all the other kids.

But she did that, too.

Certainly, McCullen didn’t have to run to the Bissells’ home last summer to care for Eric while Aaron went to the hospital for emergency surgery.

Of course, she did.

Tomorrow, at a dinner and ceremony at the Ramada Inn in Auburn, McCullen will receive the state Department of Mental Retardation’s 1998 Excellence in Inclusive Education Award, for the preschool/kindergarten level in the DMR’s Region II, which covers Central Massachusetts.

McCullen was nominated for the award by Eric and Aaron’s parents, Cynthia and Richard, who are quick to note that McCullen has included their sons not only in her classroom, but in her heart.

Although the state’s special education law requires that all children with special needs be educated for “maximum feasible benefit,” school systems and parents do not always see eye-to-eye.

“Many schools try to give the children as little as possible,” Richard Bissell said. “We were very concerned. But when we first brought Eric and Aaron here, we could see that Sue saw them first as little boys rather than children with special needs.” Of course, they are both.

Born in July 1993, at just 23 weeks gestation, Eric and Aaron Bissell faced long odds just to survive. Meeting the special medical needs of the twins has meant years of surgeries, treatments, medication, worry, and stress for the Bissell family.

But the little boy part is blossoming.

Following surgery last summer to rebuild his trachea, Aaron is a lively, talkative 4-year-old — his latest projects include mastering the use of the bathroom, an in-depth study of washing his hands, and participating in show-and-tell. Due to cerebral palsy, Eric still has significant problems with his muscles and motor skills, but has made phenomenal progress with verbal skills in recent months.

“Everything lately is ‘That would be nice!'” Cynthia Bissell said. “We ask if he’d like to go to school or shopping – ‘That would be nice!'”

For McCullen, welcoming the Bissell’s into her classroom has been a natural extension of the educational philosophy she adapted at an early age.

“It was in eighth grade that I wrote once ‘I hope to work with children with special needs,’ ” McCullen said. “I’ve always been interested in how all kids learn, particularly the acquisition of language. I do just see kids as kids.”

Her most frustrating days of teaching, McCullen said, were in dealing with nonspecial needs, or so-called typical children, in second and third grade, whose behavior and motivation were often far less than what she sees among the Bissell’s and others.

McCullen’s preschool is a mix of special and typical children – based on the philosophy that exposing the groups to one another builds understanding from an early age, as well as helping to break down barriers and prejudices that exist in the children’s parents.
Grafton teacher succeeds with ‘bulldozer’ approach

Eric uses a special walker with wheels. To help the typical children understand Eric’s situation, McCullen named the walker a “bulldozer,” after the piece of heavy equipment that children find endearing. And it worked. With Eric’s permission, the other children even get a chance to use the “bulldozer.”

The Grafton preschool program offers a morning and afternoon session, and is popular enough that the school system must hold a lottery each year for those families who want their typical children to take part.

John McIntyre, director of family support and children’s services for DMR’s Region II, said that the work of teachers such as McCullen, and the advocacy and dedication shown by the Bissells, are an illustration of how the state, schools, and parents can and should work together.

A generation or two ago, McIntyre said, children with special needs or mental illness were shunted aside, hidden away, and rarely spoken of. Some made it into sheltered work-shops. Attitudes began to change when parents demanded that society do better, leading to the state’s land-mark Chapter 766 legislation in the 1970’s, and the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.

Today, McIntyre said, the benefits of inclusion are being widely demonstrated. They are breaking down barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding in adults, and allowing children to see and understand, from a very young age, that children with special needs aren’t scary or strange, but mostly just like themselves.

“This is the next step in a movement that began in Massachusetts on the order of 25 years ago,” McIntyre said. “The idea is that they become full, taxpaying citizens. A lot of these children, as they get to be 14, 15 years old, hopefully the schools will begin a transition program with them. The idea is that they get invited to birthday parties, that they become part of the neighborhood. I think the community is enhanced when we embrace kids with disabilities.”

McIntyre said the awards program, now in its second year, has provided a focus for the good work being done all over the state. A group of parents reviews applications for the awards, interviews the nominees, and votes on who the recipients will be.

For the Bissells, the experiences of the last few years have been a rigorous test of their love for one another and the strength of their family. They are passing those tests, in part by reaching out to other parents and the medical community with advice, information and support. Their anger and despair have been transformed into action and hope, they said.

The couple helped start Families Organizing for Change, a statewide support group for individuals with disabilities and their families. Richard is now executive coordinator for Central Massachusetts, and writes for the organization’s newsletter “Compass.” Cynthia works with the Family Health Support Project at UMass/Memorial Health Care.

Like many parents, their work at home is never done, but they also have begun to expand the scope of their concerns, exploring the many issues involved in helping society as a whole do right by those in greatest need.

More on the Excellence in Inclusive Education Award from our local paper, the Grafton News.


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