"Weirdo. Retard. Stupid. Slowpoke."
With gentle prodding, the third graders at Liberty Elementary School had no problem coming up with the words used to describe people with mental retardation.

A few minutes later, the kids got a taste of what it's like.
Split up into small groups, they were told to put socks over their hands, take some old shirts, untie their shoes and try to dress themselves. Then they were to write on the blackboard "your uncle's first name, your aunt's last name, your cousin's first name and your pet's name." No questions allowed. "Hey, whose name? My aunt's what name?" Sorry, no questions. Then it was off to another room, where the kids were given two minutes to duplicate a fairly detailed drawing on graph paper. "You mean we gotta count every little square?!" Everyone also had to take turns trying to fashion origami cups based on a rapid list of instructions given just once. Finally, the children had to trace pictures by using a mirrored reflection as a guide.

All the exercises were supervised by smiling, friendly--but unhelpful--parent volunteers. The tasks were bewildering.

Less threatening to everybody was a short film from Boston public television about a mentally retarded girl named Paige--narrated by Paige's sister Jane. The kids also read and discussed a poem about people's similiarities and differences.

Liberty, a school in northeast Phoenix, was the setting this spring for a semester-long series of elaborate training sessions for third and sixth graders called "Understanding Handicaps," orchestrated by volunteers under the guidance of district parent Amy Hyman.

The kids at Liberty had already completed training sessions on blind, deaf and physically handicapped people and had heard guest speakers. So they were somewhat prepared when, a week after their first session on mental retardation, Brenda Bargmann came to the school to talk to them.

"Hello!" Brenda told the crowd of third graders. "Just after I was born 27 years ago, it was discovered I had Down syndrome. The doctors pleaded with my parents to leave me at the hospital to be placed in an institution. My mom would not hear of it or accept such advice."

Brenda has an extra chromosome in each of her cells--a distinction that marks the estimated 250,000 Americans who have Down syndrome, the leading clinical cause of mental retardation. One child in every 1,000 live births has Down syndrome, which usually causes delay in physical, intellectual and language development; the degree of retardation varies widely.

Among other things, Brenda talked about her deep faith in Jesus Christ and herself. And her extremely busy life.

In addition to being a speechmaker, Brenda Bargmann's also something of a "groundbreaker."

She's helping smooth the path through regular school classes for children such as five-year-old Ashley Halawith, who has Down syndrome and will start classes at Liberty in the fall, and ten-year-old Tammy Cooper, who has a variety of physical and mental handicaps from brain damage and just finished her first year of regular classes at the school.

Ashley's mom, Vivian, admits some fear about "mainstreaming" Ashley, and that's one reason she was an observer at Amy Hyman's sessions. "I was really pleased," Halawith says. "I really like the little exercises they had the kids doing." Those frustrating tasks? Depends on how you look at it. In Halawith's view, the kids were interacting well by helping one another get through it.

She gave a rave review to Brenda for doing "an excellent job in front of a bunch of third graders--what a scary little group."

Brenda told the kids about moving from town to town and going to a variety of schools. In the early Eighties, she was the first person with Down syndrome to graduate from Scottsdale Chaparral High School. It was tough. "Some kids were very cruel," she told the third graders. "They called me an `ugly duckling' and made fun of me. But I learned to ignore their words and to pray for them."

Ashley Halawith has attended a regular preschool for a couple of years, and "she's done fine," says her mom. Until that could happen, however, Vivian herself had to change. "When she was first born," Vivian says, "I kind of looked for prejudice, and if I found it, I think it was because people were reacting to me and not to her. I kind of expected people to look at my baby and go, `Oooh, what's wrong with her?' And so I just walked around with an attitude on my shoulders, and once I got rid of that, I just don't see it. I mean, if people stare, I don't see it.

"Maybe, it was getting over what you have to go through when you first have a child with disabilities--the hurt, the pain, the grief. `Why did this happen to me? I did everything right. I don't deserve this.' Basically, it's just accepting your child. When I was okay with it, then the attitude went away. It didn't happen overnight. One day, you wake up and go, `Gee, I don't feel so bad.'"

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy