And the most important work that I have ever done, I have done as a teacher – first, of students with significant disabilities, and second, as a teacher of graduate students in education and related fields.
I have learned the real meaning of teaching – which is not that our students become almost as good as we, or even that they become as good as we, but that if we truly teach well, they will become better than we are.
And the true definition of a good teacher is one who prepares students to do much more than he or she could have ever done.
That is equally true for all of our students, whether they have significant intellectual disabilities or whether they are working toward the highest professional degree in their field.
My career has spanned the modern history of the field.
In addition to my first job as a teacher in a state institution, I also taught in a separate school for students with severe disabilities founded by a parent advocacy organization.
In the 1960s and early ‘70s, parents had no other choice but to establish their own schools, because at that time students with severe disabilities were excluded from public school simply because of the fact of their disability.
In the mid-1970s, I taught in a public school for students with significant disabilities, but it was a school for students with significant disabilities only.
The opportunities for interactions and friendships with peers without disabilities, so essential in the lives of our students, were simply not available at that time.
And I also saw the full impact of the passage of our great national special education law – then called PL94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.
The law was passed by Congress in 1975 but actually went into full effect in the fall of 1977.
That year, I had started teaching in a public school in east-central Illinois, and into my classroom that first school day walked seven students, ages 14-19.
For each of them, it was their first day in a public school!
I went on to teach students with significant disabilities in Danville in the 1980s while I was working on my doctorate in education at the University of Kentucky.
As I witnessed the power of friendships among my students and the other high school students at that
school, I realized that students with significant disabilities could fully belong to their school communities, and that they could be valued in their own right as friends and fellow students by their classmates without disabilities.
After I earned my doctorate, I started work at the University of Kentucky at the Human Development Institute (HDI) on a Systems Change Project for Students with Severe Disabilities.
The focus of that project was to work with schools throughout Kentucky in closing separate schools for students with significant disabilities.
The goal was to enable those students to attend regular schools with other students in their communities.
We also saw the first work to truly include students with significant disabilities not just in the life of the school, but to fully participate in core content, academic classes.
I continued to work at HDI during those years, becoming Training Director, and then Executive Director in 2000.
One of the projects that I have most enjoyed during that time has been our Kentucky Peer Support Network Project, which is funded by the Commonwealth Council on Developmental Disabilities.
The objective is to work with schools throughout the state to develop peer networks and peer supports.
Networks of three to six and a student with a significant disability meet once a week to plan activities they can do together as friends.
Peer supports (two-three students without disabilities) provide ongoing support to a student with a significant disability so he or she can participate in all activities of a general education class.
On June 30 of 2015, I officially retired as Director of HDI, though my work on the Kentucky Peer Support Network Project continues.
Yet I also know that what we have achieved since the 1960s is nowhere near enough, not even close, not by a long shot.
And there are two things that remain deeply unfinished in my own work.
The first is a focus on students with the most severe disabilities.
Along with Dr. Jacqui Kearns of the Human Development Institute and my wife, Dr. Jane Kleinert, a Communication Disorders faculty member in the UK College of Health Sciences, we have conducted research that shows that nationally up to 10% of students with the most significant disabilities are leaving school without a reliable mode of communication.
That means they have no way to express their needs, wants and dreams.
Nothing in education is more fundamental than the ability to communicate.
And 40 years after the passage of our great national law entitling all children the right to attend public school, a significant percentage of students are not achieving this most essential of all life outcomes.
Secondly, I would simply note the importance of the very first moment in which a family receives a diagnosis.
As more and more parents receive a diagnosis of a developmental disability prenatally, at birth or soon after birth, it is absolutely essential that we be there with balanced, accurate and up-to-date information about what life will be like for that family and for that child.
That is the true beginning of family support, and it is one of the most important moments in the lives of families.
That is why I value so greatly the opportunity I’ve had to work with our National Center for Prenatal and Postnatal Resources, also based at HDI.
Families deserve the knowledge of the full possibilities of life for their children from the very first moment of diagnosis.
We have a commensurate obligation to ensure that the supports necessary to achieve those possibilities will always be there for the future.
Photo: Harold Kleinert is flanked by his wife, Dr. Jane O’Regan Kleinert, and his daughter, Elizabeth Coady Brownstein