From Rejection to Revolution, 1960-65
Janet Taggart says something that every woman at the table understands: “When your kid is rejected, it becomes a very personal battle.” They’re four old friends who have met for lunch on a bright February day. They’re also the revolutionaries who founded Northwest Center back in 1965, each one driven by that very personal battle.
For Taggart, it happened in the early 1960s when she tried to enroll her daughter Naida in school, a church program, even health insurance. “She never had insurance until she turned 18 and became eligible for Medicaid,” Taggart once said. “When she was 5, I wanted to enroll her in Sunday school and was told it would upset the other kids. When we went to our neighborhood public school, we were literally ushered out of the building.”
Cecile Lindquist has a similar story about her cousin Tom. When he was rejected by Seattle Public Schools, she called a school official. “I said, ‘There must be some mistake, because he’s very anxious to go to school.’ He said, ‘Well, something’s really wrong with him.’ I said, ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him.’”
The other founders laugh with recognition.
“‘He fits in well with our family and he’s very happy and the neighborhood kids all like him,” Cecile remembers saying. “And he just is delighted when he learns something.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re not telling me everything.’ And I said, ‘Well, he does have Down syndrome.’ He said, ‘Well, of course. He can’t come to school.’ I thought, ‘Shall I talk anymore? Shall I tell him to go to hell?’ I just said, ‘Good-bye.’”
For Sally Puff, the battle came into focus when her daughter Ginny was 5. “The University of Washington had a pilot school for severely handicapped kids. They said they wouldn’t take her unless she was toilet-trained. So I lived in the bathroom, she and I both, and she did learn how to use the toilet after four or five months. We started her at the pilot school, but after a couple of weeks they said they couldn’t take her because they couldn’t assure her safety there.”
It was also difficult for Evelyn Chapman to find a place for her son Coolidge, who attended the Spastic Children’s Pre-School. “Just about all of the kids that they were serving were medically fragile. Coolidge was not medically fragile. He was large for his age and he was hyperactive. They kept Coolidge until he was 5 as a favor to me, but they didn’t really know how to serve him, so they were going to let him go.
“The Special Ed director for Seattle Public Schools would come around in the spring and decide personally which kids he would take,” she says. “He took one look at Coolidge and said, ‘No. We can’t serve him.’”
Not only did these moms have trouble sending their kids to school, they were criticized for wanting their children to live at home. The prevailing attitude from doctors, schools and even other parents was that people with developmental disabilities belonged in institutions.
“Parents who had their children in institutions were working to better the conditions—which were abysmal, so rightfully so,” Taggart remembers. “But we had difficulty even understanding why they would want their children in an institution.
“Naida was sort of alone, I felt, in the world,” she continues. “When she was 3 or 4, I put an ad in the newspaper, asking for a playmate for her.”
A local mother responded with an invitation to a playgroup. “We met two or three times a week; we sat in the living room while the kids played. And while this was interesting, I couldn't see this as a way of Naida growing up,” Taggart says.
She began talking to the other parents about doing more for their kids. “We started (forming a) school without really even understanding how it happened,” she says.
Taggart helped found the Central School for Severely Retarded Children, with classes held in the basement of Capitol Hill’s Temple di Hersch. Parents hired teachers, assisted during class and even cleaned the classroom. Similar schools like Hopecrest and the New School for the Special Child had been springing up in spare rooms and church basements across Seattle, which led to the moniker “basement schools.”
“The programming was primitive,” says Taggart, “but it was all we had then. And those teachers, I’ll always give them credit. They created something out of nothing. It helped a lot of kids.”
“They kept the idea alive until Northwest Center could be formed,” agrees Chapman.
For All Children
Families often struggled to pay basement school teachers; even ten dollars a week was out of reach for many. There was some education funding available from the Epton Bill, written by State Senator Kaye Epton, who had a child with a disability. But though the founders rave about Epton (“She was just wonderful,” says Lindquist), signing up caused more anguish. “To qualify, you had to say you were waiting for a place in an institution for your child,” Taggart says.
“It just became clear that we weren’t going to be able to finance this over the long haul,” says Lindquist.
Several schools approached the Boeing Employees Good Neighbor Fund for grants. A member of the fund’s board, Fred Fontana, also the parent of a child with a disability, suggested that five schools merge into one. With $20,000 from the Boeing fund, a steering committee began planning a school that would include a workshop for job and life skills training.
“What I recall so vividly is that constant hope coming from the parents that this would be for all children,” says Lindquist. “Not any right to reject anyone. That set the stage for our mission.”
The committee negotiated with the local Navy command, lobbied Senators Henry Jackson and Warren G. Magnuson for support, and eventually secured two unused Naval Supply Depot buildings at Pier 91 in Interbay. Northwest Center for the Retarded was officially dedicated on September 14, 1965. A key was presented to eight-year-old student Debra Walruff, who had the honor of officially opening the doors.
The Revolution Begins
Yet even with a dedicated facility, board of directors and greatly expanded curriculum, the struggles didn’t end. Northwest Center’s board chairman came from an organization dedicated to people with disabilities, which included two of her daughters. But she immediately clashed with parents.
“I was so excited because they said, ‘We’re going to serve everyone,’” remembers Puff. “I said, ‘Then you will take Ginny?’ And she said, ‘Well, actually, we’re just not equipped to serve Ginny right now.’ I didn’t hear the rest of what she said. That was when I realized that my daughter would never be protected unless I saw to it that everyone was served.”
What followed was what the founders refer to as “Interbaygate” or simply “the Break-In.”
“The parents had organized into a Mothers Guild of about 85 people,” says Taggart. “They were getting very angry because we had been promising that their kids would not be expelled, ever, ever, ever.” Guild members knew they had to replace the chairman—but first they needed to contact all current board members.
“To do that, we needed the mailing list,” Chapman explains. But the very women who had founded Northwest Center weren’t allowed to access the list; it was locked away in an office inside the school.
“We weren’t going to let them keep control of our list,” says Chapman. “So I went down there after-hours with Mary, my baby daughter who was two months old, in my arms. Didn’t tell anybody what I was up to. I went down with a screwdriver and unlocked the hasp on the building. I went into the office where they had stashed the names and addresses of all the voting members at Northwest Center. And then we were able to send mailings to ask them to vote for Cecile.”
“These are my nice, dear friends who got me into all this trouble,” laughs Lindquist, to which Chapman responds, “Exactly!”
They had already changed education for their children. Soon they would go on to change the world.
This story includes interviews with Evelyn Chapman, Cecile Lindquist, Sally Puff and Janet Taggart conducted during the winter of 2015 and at our 2012 Founders Roundtable, and a 2014 interview with Janet Taggart from causes.com
50 Stories Worth Sharing
This story is the part of Northwest Center’s 50th Anniversary Project: 50 Stories Worth Sharing. To celebrate our 50th anniversary, we are sharing 50 stories that illustrate the value of inclusion and the way everyone benefits when People of All Abilities engage with each other in the classroom, the workplace, and in the community.
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