by Joyce Ford


Teaching skills to my son who is deaf-blind has often meant dissecting activities into tiny increments. To drink from a cup begins with locating it, grasping it, lifting it... and ten steps later taking a sip. Setting it down right-side up is another skill. Someone appropriately named it backwards chaining; the learning of a skill by chaining the sequence together backwards from the completion to the beginning.

So it was when it came to doors, except that the variety became greater. There are doors with doorknobs, and some with push-bars. There are sliding doors, folding doors, cabinet doors, car doors, and automatic doors in some places. Southwestern Idaho doesn't have many revolving I put that one aside for later. I focused on the plentiful assortment of doors that Riley encountered daily.

To fully consider the use of doors, I knew that our support services at McKinley Elementary School would be involved as they had been in other activities. Physical therapy would be concerned with Riley's upper body strength. Some doors are quite heavy. The therapist would plan exercises to develop those muscles. Occupational therapy would be troubled with the twisting wrist movement necessary for doorknobs, a motion quite unnatural for Riley. Speech therapy would emphasize signing words such as open, close, inside and outside into Riley's hands. The orientation and mobility instructor would worry about doors that others might dangerously open in Riley's path. Riley would need to be better with his cane. The Special Ed teacher would discuss data: 80% success on 50% of trials with 25% accuracy...a goal would be developed for Riley's Individual Education Plan.

In March of 1992, Riley left the McKinley Special Ed classroom and moved into a regular third grade classroom. Riley is the only deaf-blind student in our school district and one of the first students with severe disabilities to be included full time in a regular education classroom. He was now one of twenty-two third-graders, and the only one who didn't do doors. Fortunately, he was in the company of twenty-one eager 8-year-olds who were more than willing to overlook that. In their eyes, Riley could do lots of other things with them... eat lunch, play at recess, art, P.E., music, and library... all of which they felt were much more important than doors.

The following September the McKinley third-graders moved on to fourth grade, but it was without Riley. As a team, we had decided that Riley needed a full year of regular third grade before moving on. He started this new school year with twenty-one fresh and eager 8-year-old third-graders who were also willing to overlook the problem with doors.

The children willingly included Riley in their school day activities, but there were no friends when he came home. No one came to play on the weekends.

They all lived too far away. Summer would be a long time to spend alone. By December, the decision had been made to move Riley to Valley View, our neighborhood school. Perhaps he would make friends here that would fill the void. The move would occur following Spring Break. Careful planning, attention, and support would be needed for staff and students since Riley would be the first child with severe disabilities to attend this school.

To help with the move, four of Riley's classmates were asked to talk with the third-graders at Valley View. Ellie, a teacher who works with Riley, got them started by asking, What is one thing that you would want other kids to know about Riley? They each answered differently with blatant honesty.

You need to be gentle with him, one little girl answered. He won't break, but you need to be gentle. Riley can't see and he can't hear... but he's just like us inside, one of the boys added.

The new third-graders began asking their own questions. What didn't you like about having Riley in your class?

I didn't like it that he lived so far away. I can only see him at school and
I would like to play with him at his house, but he doesn't live in our neighborhood so I can't go to see him.

Why did Riley go to your school if he doesn't live in your neighborhood?
We don't know, Trisha responded matter-of-factly, but we feel really lucky that he did.

How did you feel when Riley first came to your class?

Darren took this question. I knew a little bit about Riley before because he was in my sister's class last year. I didn't mind helping him...we all wanted to help him. I just didn't know he would be my friend. Now when I think about my friends, I would have to say that Riley is one of my best friends. Tears came to his eyes. I'm really going to miss him.

I hadn't planned on this. No one ever mentioned separation and loss. Inclusion was about good things...maybe this was good, but it didn't feel particularly good. Something had to be done to reassure these kids that they would always be an important part of Riley's life. March 31, 1993 was Riley's last day at McKinley. Valley View honored Riley as their V.I.P. with a special bulletin board and a question and answer session.

We met at the school at 12:30 and Riley was introduced in person. I brought some pictures and fielded their questions. Some of the questions were similar to the ones the McKinley students had asked a year ago: Does he like to play Nintendo? What is his favorite color? Does he say words? They were the questions kids who haven't been exposed to severe disabilities ask.

At 2:30 a farewell party was held at McKinley. I am a familiar face there, and I could tell the third-graders with all honesty and sincerity that they were very special people and that they would not be forgotten. I gave them each a little heart shaped pin with the I love you sign on it. Riley and I passed out chocolate cupcakes with mounds of white frosting and blue flowers.
We saved the one he had stuck his thumb into several times for himself and carried it back to his desk where he promptly devoured it. I went to get paper towels.

A little girl approached me. Crystal is crying, she said. She doesn't want Riley to leave, and neither do I, she added tearfully. He is our friend. It won't be the same without him, another voice echoed.

I was surrounded by weeping children and I felt my own tears begin. They had all made cards for Riley... textured with colorful pipe cleaners, yarn, straws, beans, and fuzzy stickers. Each carried their message of friendship and wishes for new friends. Ben wrote Riley's name in braille. Trisha's began with a red velvet heart and contained a message to match it inside.

You and Riley are going to leave, aren't you? Crystal asked.
I promise you we'll come back, I answered.
But you're going to leave.
Yes... we're going to leave.

But when we leave, you can know in your hearts that you did something remarkable. Part of each of you will go with us, and I hope that part of Riley and I will always stay with you. You taught all of us grown-ups some very important lessons. I kissed her forehead. This is something we have to do.

There was another group of children on the other side of the room who were not tearful. They were speaking quietly and seriously to their teacher. There are just so many types of doors. The dishwasher door opens down and the door on the car trunk opens up. The microwave has a button that must be pushed to open it's door. When you think about it, there is a lot to teach about doors. The children across the room were solemn. They spoke their quiet wisdom in turns.

The oven door is hot sometimes and cool at other times. The refrigerator door is cold on the outside and colder on the inside. The back door has a storm door with a pet door. Some doors open to stairs and others don't. There is a lot to consider about doors.

They asked their teacher if another student from the self-contained classroom could come and be part of them. They told her they wanted that. They told her they needed that. She respectfully nodded in agreement. And while I pondered the complexities of doors and my son's disabilities, Riley it seems, with his tremendous abilities had magically opened the heaviest and most difficult door of all.

A-Z to Deafblindness