Ticket to Freedom
Personal freedom-My mother always said great importance in having an education. From early in my childhood, she insisted that I go to school like any other child. She became my first teacher. But never was college considered a possibility. After getting my high school diploma, I went to a rehabilitation center where I entered a typing program. No one bothered to tell me that in order to be a clerk typist, you needed to be able to type at least 40 wpm with a maximum of 5 errors. When I learned this, I felt betrayed, and I quit the program, returned home depressed. There was another reason I wouldn’t see my vocational rehabilitation counselor. He wanted me to go to a sheltered workshop which was for those whose diagnosis was primarily “mental retardation”. I didn’t get dressed; I don’t even remember eating regularly. I wondered what would happen to me. Finally, my brother, who was a graduate student at PSU, asked one of his professors if there was some way that his younger sister could go to college. The professor had influence, and recommended to the appropriate people (I assume was Admissions) that I would be able to attend the branch campus for 2 terms and then my acceptance would be based on my GPA.
In Sept. 1972, the year congress passed the Right to Education Law which allowed children with significant disabilities to attend public schools; I became an adjunct student at Penn State University’s Shenango Valley campus. I excelled academically, making the Dean’s List and that next fall, I began my undergraduate degree at Shenango Valley. Being older than the typical undergraduate, I made friends among the young instructors, who loved having me in their classes. My academic advisor recommended that I be exempt from taking a language (something I later regretted), and she also thought I should not take the undergraduate speech requirement, which included giving public speeches. I went to talk to the instructor, James Elder, who said “Annie, you have important things to say to the world so you might as well start in my class.” Except for statistics, college, was easy for me… not particularly intellectually challenging.
When it became apparent that I would have to transfer to the main campus, the problem of mobility was huge. There was a staff member with the Vocational Rehabilitation Office, a dark-haired young man, Mark Funkhouser that loomed 6’4.” He drove a white, Volkswagen Bug. The first time I saw him get out of the car, I thought he was going to keep going up! He wasn’t really part of the vocational rehabilitation system mentality. This system was introduced by the United States Federal government about the end of WWII and was designed to assist physically disabled veterans back to work. At this point in history, those with physical disabilities were not actually integrated into public schools, much less institutions of higher education. He told his supervisor, my rehabilitation counselor, that I needed “an Amigo” the first electric scooter (no treads on the tires, acid batteries, and no brakes!).
In the spring of 1973, the Rehab Act was passed, requiring preference be given to those with severe disabilities, even though they were the most difficult to employ. This uncompromising novice to the rehabilitation state government bureaucracy was persuasive in getting me the scooter. He accused his supervisor of only wanting to obey the recent amendment to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act that mandated priority consideration is given to the most severely impaired and not truly being interested in having me succeed.
The summer of 1974 I transferred to the main University Park campus. The influential professor got me set up in McKee Hall, close to my classes. He offered the opportunity to his student to get a guaranteed “C” in his class, if he would help me get around campus. I’ll never forget, Greg, the student with curly blond hair and blue eyes, he encouraged me to explore the speed of my scooter, I still have the scars. Back then there were no curb cuts, but it came with a portable ramp. Another student was offered the same deal, and he helped me with my evening meal. He’d been in the Peace Corp, had a hot plate and could cook anything. I even had a toaster oven in my room for breakfast.
Academics proved to be not much of a challenge, even at the main campus. Mostly I enjoyed the interaction and opportunity to learn and socialize with other people. I carried around a piece of carbon paper and asked whoever was sitting beside me to put the carbon paper in their notebook. That’s how I got my class notes. My having nearly a photographic memory made it easy for me to pass mid-term and final exams. Everybody at the branch campus thought it would be academically more difficult at the main campus, but I soon began to receive honorary academic awards. In 1975 I was in Essence Magazine, a publication primarily by and for African American women that still exists. They had selected me as one of 12 black women on American campuses and universities most likely to succeed and emerge as a leader. I remember being recognized in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport as I was traveling to see my sister that summer.
It was during those undergraduate years at University Park, when I started to have a social life. I dated for the first time. I was 25 years old. There were so many social rules I didn’t know, having grown up without a peer group, and/or age appropriate social relationships. I felt, and often still feel, “out of place” socially with people of my own age. Therefore, I preferred to socialize with the younger crowd. Most of the time I still do.
I graduated with distinction from the highly respected Pennsylvania State University on March 3, 1976. My entire family, the Anglican Priest who had baptized me three years previously, and my two best friends from college came to my graduation. My beautician, Loretta Wilson, and her husband hosted an open house in my honor following the ceremonies. The day was a monumental accomplishment in my life!
I had established a routine that went relatively smoothly until it came time to apply for jobs. The same people who had supported my academic pursuits suddenly quit speaking to me. The professor who had used his influence to get me into school, did not believe I could or should work with people. His recommendation at the time was that I work in a library where I would not be seen publicly on a daily basis. I was hurt, disappointed, confused and angry. From the very beginning, I had told people that I wanted my college degree more than anything in the world. And, anything I had to do to get it, I was determined to do. They just didn’t believe me. I knew it would be my ticket out of the stereotypical lifestyle presumed because of my developmental disability and perhaps my cultural background, to an independent life, and the working world.
I was employed full- time by the Easter Seal Society of Centre and Clinton Counties and United Cerebral Palsy of Central Pennsylvania. Both agencies provided services to people with a wide variety of disabilities. I soon discovered that I did not enjoy working with those that were dealing with the same issues that I had dealt with all my life. There was the presumption that I, not only wanted to work with those with similar disabilities, but this was the work that I should do. I felt stereotyped into “playing” a role that didn’t “fit” my interests or intellectual capacity, so I decided to go in a different direction.
I continued living in State College, PA, determined to earn an income that would supplement my monthly disability check. After seeking the advice of several friends, I thought of turning my hobby of writing poetry into a small business, called Poetry Cards. A friend from my church volunteered to illustrate and do the calligraphy for six cards to get me started. Following those initial designs, I paid several artists a flat fee to illustrate my poems and write them in artistic calligraphy. For the next 8 years, I created, marketed, distributed and sold my own greeting cards to wholesale and retail buyers. During these years I also began to travel, taking my work with me. I frequently visited friends in Allentown, PA, and explored the New England coastline of Maine, where a close friend lived.
Everywhere I went I established an outlet for my poetry cards to ensure a return trip. People were so welcoming and would invite me to write at their homes, once they knew that I loved being by the ocean. It was amazing how people responded when my reply to the question “what do you do?” was “I’m an artist, I write poetry.” They didn’t seem to care how much money I made, or if I made any at all. It was a “status symbol” to say I was an artist or a poet. I never had that before. Still, it wasn’t the intellectual challenge craved and it did not provide the opportunity to use my intellect to its full potential. I wanted something more…a professional identity.