Chapter 1: Childhood and Education
14:09:27:00 - 14:11:35:19 Lisa: My name is Lisa Sonneborn and I'm conducting a video interview with Debbie Robinson at Temple University in Philadelphia Pennsylvania on September 15, 2011. Um, also present is our videographer Lindsey Martin and Debbie do I have your permission to begin the interview?
Debbie: Yes you do.
Lisa: Thank you. So Debbie, what I'd like to start with today is, um, is some information about your childhood and so the first question I have for you is where and when you were born?
Debbie: Uh, I was born at Temple University, um, uh, in Philadelphia, um, uh, 1960. Uh, I was, um, a preemie, premature, um, seven months, uh, premature.
Lisa: And Debbie, where did you grow up? Did you remain in Philadelphia?
Debbie: No. I grew up in different parts of New York City [Queens New York], uh, different parts of New York.
Lisa: Can you recall maybe one or two of your earliest childhood memories?
Debbie: Uh, um, I recall when my brothers, I had five brothers so, uh, I was going to the, um, they liked basketball so I recall them, uh, wheeling me to the basketball court, watching them play basketball.
Lisa: Are you still a basketball fan?
Debbie: Yes. Football is my favorite though.
14:11:37:00 - 14:13:00:19 Lisa: I wonder Debbie, if you could tell me a little bit about your mother?
Debbie: Um, um, my mother, um, we a, well when I was born, um, you know, doctors, um, uh, told my parents that I have cerebral palsy so basically I stayed home, um, mostly my brothers watched me. My mother and father worked. My father was in the service and he, um, in the, I mean, in the, um, Army, uh, so, uh, my older brothers were watching me. My mother worked, uh, so they kept me at home or I had a lot of operations to get when I was young. Uh, in the hospital a lot.
14:13:02:15 - 14:13:42:23 Lisa: Debbie, you said your mom worked. Can you tell me where she worked? What did she do for a living?
Debbie: Uh, she worked in New York. Korvettes department store is one of the places that I remember she worked and my father was a bus driver but like I said he was in the, um, he was also, um, in the service. Uh, Army I believe and my father was a, um, a bus driver, uh, Green Line bus line in New York.
14:13:42:16 - 14:14:30:23 Lisa: Debbie, you mentioned you had five brothers.
Lisa: And you're the only girl?
Lisa: So what was it like being the only sister of five brothers?
Debbie: Well, uh, you know, it was a loving, loving family. Um, my brothers, uh, my older brothers, uh, you know, um, I had one in the Army another one in the Army and one in the Air Force. Uh, you know, they, they'd taken me places, like basket, like I said to the basketball court or, um, when we were younger I remember us playing somewhat of baseball. I, um, you know, watched them play baseball too, so.
14:14:31:22 - 14:15:52:11 Lisa: Debbie, you had said that you were born at seven months, born prematurely. Um, and you've also said that you have cerebral palsy. When was your disability diagnosed? Debbie: I believe, um, uh, six months, um, when I was six months old. I believe, um, not really sure but I really believe that, uh, around that time or maybe a little older. Um, you know, around that time people didn't know what, uh, the doctors, how much the doctors knew or how they knew anything about, um, about cerebral palsy cause I knew I was different cause I couldn't sit up, I couldn't, um, crawl right or, you know, there was things that, noticeable cause I was, uh, you know, uh, premature, um, seven months, uh, so, uh, that had a lot to do with it.
14:15:53:17 - 14:16:47:17 Lisa: So you have, you had a large family, six children, two parents who worked. How did your family manage to support you at home?
Debbie: At home, uh, like I said, my brothers, the older ones, um, was watching me and the other part of the time I was in, um, in the hospital with operations. My father always came up, my mother came up. I had, you know, about 15 operations over that period of time, so I was at, in the hospital getting operated mostly. Uh, you know, most of the time I had to go for an operation and that took weeks and months and whatever. Sometimes they had to repeat it. It didn't work right the first time but I had a, in that time frame I had a lot of operations.
14:16:49:16 - 14:17:55:01 Lisa: You must have been very young when you are having those operations. Wondering, do you remember anything from being, from all those hospitalizations?
Debbie: Well, uh, you know, uh, I guess the going through it, um, cause I can't tolerate pain so, uh, the casts, the, uh, you know, not being, uh, I always had to have somebody around, uh, to take me up and down the steps or, you know, to the bathroom. Um, bedpans I guess, uh, not able to, um, get around.
14:17:55:22 - 14:20:11:05 Lisa: Is that what you remember from your time in the hospital, in your hospital stays, needing that support, Debbie?
Debbie: Well, you know, I got a lot of support at home. I had all my, um, you know, my brothers. The older ones, you know, my mother and my father, uh, you know, um, so all my supports, um, really, um, I got a lot of support from, um, my brothers and, uh, my mother and, you know, uh, at home so they did what they could. Um, uh, you know, um, cause there wasn't that many around that time I don't think there was a support network or, uh, in the 60s especially in, uh, in New York and then the recovery time I had to go for, um, this other place out in the Island, um, for recovery after you have an operation and, um, before I even went home, uh, you know, and, uh, and that was a scary place to me cause I was too young. You know, they, um, my family get, my parents got me on the weekends and then I had to go back at, uh, and stay there for, um, during the weeks and come home on the weekends.
14:20:12:20 - 14:20:59:27 Lisa: And what was scary about those places or those times for you?
Debbie: Uh, I guess it was out on the Island. It was a scary building. It just was, you know, I never liked it. They always had to, I remember when, uh, the only way they could, the only, like a Sunday. The only way, um, they could get me out of the house or, um, to go back there is when I went back to, they wait till I go to sleep and then get me home, ready and I'm in the car but I'm already knocked out. Too tired and they drive me back there for the week and then, you know, I come home on the weekends.
14:21:01:07 - 14:24:08:10 Lisa: Was there ever any discussion in your family, Debbie given the support needed, you needed, the support that you needed particularly after your surgeries. Was there ever any discussion in your family about sending you to an institution to live?
Debbie: No. Uh, no, um, not that I, uh, um, not that I know of, um, I don't, I think my parents just decided to have me, um, at home and knowing I had three older brothers. Um, and, you know, when my mother got home and the things at home so, um, you know and, uh, I'm not sure if, um, when the doctors met with my parents, uh, if that was a discussion, um, it might of been, uh, but my parents, uh, decided to have me at home, uh, because of the support that I had at home and, you know, not including I have a big family. My cousins, uh, or, uh, my uncles came by or, you know, everybody, uh, you know, nobody knows how to really take care of you. They, your parents know more than, uh, I mean, uh, you know, my mother, um, and my, and the rest of my family, my mother and my father and my brothers. They knew how to take care of me if need be. Uh, you know,, cause we had to, we had the bedpan and my brothers and my family were pretty, um, pretty strong even though the steps and things like that. I've always had people, uh, you know and carry me and if I had to go with the pillows and stuff, you know, I think my parents realized they can take care of me better than strangers can cause they know, uh, they, you know, I'm their daughter so and nobody that knows you better than your parents and I think that that is, uh, you know, played a part in it.
14:24:09:14 - 14:27:38:10 Lisa: Debbie, I wanted to ask you, when you started school, did you start school typically like kids do?
Debbie: Uh, oh, I don't know. I remember going to school. I don't know if it was, um, I remember going to school when I was young, real young. Um, and I'm not, I don't know, uh, if it was kindergarten, first grade or what it was. I was still in a wheelchair but I had one of the toughest teachers I have ever seen and her name was Mrs. Glass. She was a little, she was short, had glasses, big thick glasses. Uh, and knowing my parents could not get me out of the chair and I wouldn't to go to therapy and this and that to teach me how to walk. Uh, she was determined to get me out of the chair. I just remember, um, going into her class and back in those days they had this stand up box and wouldn't, and you had this door, uh, in the back of it and I, so I could, you know, and it was one time when she said I'm going to get you out of this chair one day. Um, and I guess when I came in there with my chair she, um, had this, uh, you know, why are you not getting out of the chair? I didn't feel, I came up with all kinds of excuses. She didn't want to buy it. She was tough, one of them teachers where, you know, uh, so she had this box, like I said, I had never seen one, uh, so, um, they had my legs, um, and I had braces I believe at some point, um, and I remember, um, in the middle of the room she got me up into this box and this, it's a wooden table, it's all wooden, it was wood and it locks in the back and, um, and, um, and I stood up in there. You couldn't go anywhere, uh, till class was over and whatever. Um, that's where I did my homework, all my, not homework, where I did my work, uh, you know, in school and stuff but, um, you know, I always call it, I call it the standup box, a wooden box you stand up in it, um, and I, and after a while I got the meaning of it and then I started, um, and, you know, I said this, uh, I started that, I really started, um, doing what I was supposed to do at home which was getting out of the chair, um, walking with crutches when, um, she, she got me that way. She was tough but, you know, I appreciated that.
14:27:38:26 - 14:29:43:23 Lisa: So you think her, her toughness and her making you stand in this box was a positive thing?
Debbie: Um huh. Yeah. Uh, it was only when I had to go to school and when we had class, you know, when I was in school, um, that I had, um, and it did help, um, straighten out my legs, make it stronger, um, you know, back in those days when school, it was special ed, um, you know, and, uh, I appreciated it, I, um, you know, how many times will you say no to the teacher back in those days. That's a, that's a big no-no. They had the ruler then. They could hit you in your hand, stuff like that. I fell asleep in one of my classes, in her class. I was up doing my homework or something and somehow I just nodded and then she came out with the ruler and. Yet in those days you could be disciplined, uh, you know, disciplined in those days. It was, um, she was hard knocks to me. Uh, I mean it was good, it was good back then, I mean, that's, that's what we needed, I mean, in a good way, uh, you know, we respected, we did, you know, I understood, I was young. I understood the reason why and she explained it to me, you know, she, you know, wanted to see me up out of the chair and walking or standing or, you know, she, you know, she, uh, explained it and I went along with it and started doing what I had to do at home.
14:29:44:21 - 14:30:31:02 Lisa: Apart from the standing box, did you like school?
Debbie: Oh, I loved school.
Lisa: Did you have a favorite subject at school? Debbie: Mine was math and, uh, you know, reading and social studies. We didn't have, um, integrated into other classes until really later on but, you know, we stayed in our classrooms. Uh, you know, I mean, I called it back then the special ed, I guess. Uh, you know and, uh, but she was the first one I remembered.
14:30:33:08 - 14:30:58:00 Lisa: After elementary school, did you then go on to high school?
Debbie: Yeah, I went to another school, um, to another grade and this, I had, um, she was tough, she was really nice and I wish I had a picture. I had a picture of her and I, that was when I was walking with my crutches then. Her name was Mrs. Himes. She was really nice, uh, very nice.
14:30:58:20 - 14:32:19:06 Lisa: Debbie, as you move into the higher grades, junior high, high school, did you cut, were you still in special ed classes or were the classes more integrated?
Debbie: Well, when I, as, when I went to, when I went to junior high and I guess that was when I, um, I was, uh, around seven, eighth grade, eighth grade, um, 237, um, PS37. I was still in New York then and that was my, um, that was my high, that was my junior high I believe cause my younger brother went there and I ended up going there. Um, and I guess that was in the 70s. I, I don't, I can't remember the years, um, when all this cause it was so long ago so I, um, but I remember, um, going into, I believe it was PS237. Um, and that's when I remembered, um, being somewhat integrated in the other classes and things. When I moved on to other subjects.
14:32:19:25 - 14:33:40:15 Lisa: And so what was that like being in a more inclusive class having come from special ed classes?
Debbie: Um, it was interesting. Um, I mean I liked it, uh, you know, it was, um, getting used to the class. You know, there were kids that pick on you. Not as bad as today, um, or looked at us funny. You know, it was, um, some getting used to, I was like really excited, um, it was hard, it was somewhat hard to adjust, uh, and it was hard for them to adjust, seeing people with disabilities.
14:33:41:03 - 14:37:32:27 Lisa: Why you think that, why do you think it would be hard for other students to adjust to students, classmates with disabilities?
Debbie: Because back in those days no one talked to the regular students or prepared them as much as we were prepared. I sure wasn't. Um, when parents and I believe, um, didn't really talk about it, didn't really know, uh, and so I don't think it was that many education on, um, disabilities in general, um, you know, for parents and students to, um, adjust or get to know what it is. People thought that if I touch you or Lindsey or anybody, um, that they would automatically get it. Um, it's like a disease, um, so I really, you know, and I grew up in New York so New York is different than Philly, um, and, uh, so it was, um, you know, I just focus on learning the best way I knew how and doing what I, uh, I mean, I got a lot of awards for being good in school. The, um, outstanding awards and things that, you know, cause I just loved to learn and, uh, to be at school and try to, uh, I guess I, um, just focus on, um, learning as much as I can and if, you know, the kids, uh, made fun or did, you know, um, you know, um, I didn't pay no attention to it, um, cause I was in the books. I had try to be in the books and try to, um, keep up with my classes as much as I can cause, uh, you know, we didn't have, um, somebody, um, that could come in the class and help you along and, uh, I mean, you know, doing my homework at home being up half the night cause it took me longer to understand it than most. How long it took me to finish my homework, uh, um, and them heavy book bags and we had some heavy book bags back in those days. I think I broke as many book bags as I could count.
14:37:33:20 - 14:41:21:03 Lisa: When kids tease its hurtful and sometimes that stays with you for a long time, did you ever feel that you are carrying some of that?
Debbie: Well, yeah and then I and then, you know, I'm looking at the years I was born, around that or, you know, 70s, um, you know, I met some friends when I was in special ed. We kept in touch, um, I figured that, um, their parents and they didn't get educated. There were no, you know, and I think that's those years were the learning years for everybody, um, even as, uh, to, um, you know, cause for us just to walk into a normal classroom is more scary because they had to, um, make allowance to how I'm supposed to be sitting, you know, the chairs, the tables and had a, uh, so I think everybody was being, trying to, um, and it depends on the parents. Um, the kids pick on us and may call us names cause and we just tell them, you know, we're, this is, you know, even though you touch me you're not going to end up with, uh, you know, and I had to learn about my own disability. No one explained it to me and so I ended up going to a gym class so I didn't know either how to and somebody came up to me explain what happened to me or what do I have. I didn't know and when I asked parents questions, certain questions they couldn't explain it, so it, you know, because back in those days the doctors weren't educated on cerebral palsy or whatever. I guess they figured, uh, I don't, I think it had to do with a lot of the education and, uh, the knowledge and a lot of the parents especially my problem try to get it from understanding it from the doctors to know what it is. Uh, cause I was curious so I, I, um, asked a lot of questions, um, so I, you know, that's the only way you're going to learn. So when people did come up to me and tease me or did this and that, I have something to say, um, and just instead of saying I was born like this and I don't know the reason why, uh, you know and, uh, um, as you know back in those days, uh, I don't think there was much education on different disabilities, um, on different types of disabilities that people have.
14:41:20:16 - 14:43:13:02 Lisa: Debbie, you said you had to learn about your own disability and you asked questions, who did you ask the questions of?
Debbie: I think when I had, when I first went to gym, uh, wait a second, uh, when I had gym I had this gym teacher and he put me on the mat and did some stretching exercises, I just asked him questions and he, I remember him drawing a picture and explaining the body, uh, um, and, um, you know, so he drew a picture of the body, how the body works, or how it, you know, the function parts and this and that and I was, um, fascinated cause I wanted to know, uh, you know, um, how this, how this could of happened, what happened, um, you know, and I always had a curious mind anyway so always, uh, asked questions. That's the only way you might get answers, uh, to anything. Um, when my parents told me what I, what they know and what they could, uh, but I wanted some more. I wasn't, you know, I was more really curious because I had two other brothers behind me. So that's why I was curious.
14:43:13:04 - 14:44:45:25 Lisa: Debbie, as you learned more about your own disability did your parents also learn? Were you in a sense your parents teacher by your disability?
Debbie: Ha, ha, ha. Well, I, um, when I went home I, I told, yeah I believe I told my parents that I, you know, I talked to one of my gym teacher and he showed me this picture, actually he gave me a picture of what he drew and, you know, and explained, uh, cause I had some more, you know, uh, you know, my parents accepted me, uh, and accepted the disability but I think I wanted to go further than, um, you know, um, was trying to find out, um, because I was, I had three older than me and I had two behind, two younger than me so I had two brothers born, um, a couple years after I was born. So, and all, they came out all right, no disability, you know. So I think that's where, um, I was more, uh, wanted some more answers.
14:46:12:05 - 14:46:36:14 Lisa: My name is Lisa Sonneborn and I am conducting a video interview with Debbie Robinson, um, at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 16, 2011. Also present is our videographer, Lindsey Martin and Debbie, do we have your permission to continue our interview?
Debbie: Yeah, uh, yes you do.
14:46:36:28 - 14:49:08:04 Lisa: Thank you. So Debbie, um, a little earlier we were talking about, um, your experience in school and you had been talking a bit about, um, the reaction of students to the inclusive classrooms that you experienced in junior high and I wanted to just ask a question about the teachers when you first entered an inclusive classroom in junior high. Did you feel that the teachers were prepared, um, to teach students with disabilities?
Debbie: Uh, they were regular teachers so, um, uh, it was like, you know, um, the good thing about it is that I was with, uh, you know, regular students and so, uh, it was, um, you know, they didn't treat me any different, uh, you know, I, um, tried to keep up with the class you know, my homework and everything, uh, you know, um, you know, they just, uh, treated me like any other student in the classroom, uh, uh, I didn't notice any difference in, um, I got the same, you know, work that everybody else did, um, and I did the best I could, um, in school as it was, I, average, um, only when, uh, I guess I only noticed it with, um, when I was bringing home my report card. Uh, but, uh, I participated in everything that, uh, my regular class participated in, um.
14:54:15:12 - 14:54:42:13 Lisa: After junior high what did you do next in terms of your education?
Debbie: Uh, my parents put me in a, uh, trade school, uh, for four years, I believe. Well, at least until I was 21.
14:56:29:01 - 14:57:50:05 Lisa: So what happened after you left trade school? What did you do next?
Debbie: Uh, well, after I left the trade school, um, I basically stayed home a lot of years, um, I did remember as I over the years when I was going to trade school they did give us summer jobs so I was able to work in the summer as a teacher's aide. Um, and I found that very interesting, working with kids as a, um, teacher's aide, um, even, um, serving lunches but this was in the summertime. We ended up, uh, having, um, they gave the summer jobs, some of. My father signed me up for some, um, summer jobs and with my other friends that I got to meet, met in trade school.
14:57:50:07 - 14:58:39:06 Lisa: What kind of jobs did you do, Debbie?
Debbie: Uh, getting things ready for the classes, uh, for the, for the kids when they came in. Um, setting up the room, uh, helping the student's, uh, with their, um, summer school work. Whatever the teacher had me doing around lunchtime, uh, before lunchtime, around 11, 11:30 we had to go to the lunchroom and get the, um, lunches set and serve the lunches as well.
14:59:00:25 - 15:00:50:17 Lisa: So Debbie, I wanted to, um, ask some questions about your family. Some additional questions about your family, um, if I could? I know that when you were a young woman, a teenager, your parents divorced and I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about that time. How you felt, how it impacted your family?
Debbie: Uh, well my mother got, I guess my parents, my mother and father got divorced when I was a little older than that. I'm not sure, um, how old I was when that happened. Um, it, um, it was very hard, uh, I was living with my, uh, it was I believe me and my younger brother, um, was staying with my dad right then. Um, and, uh, it was very hard, uh, the separation, divorce. It wasn't easy, um, and then I end up, uh, staying with my dad for a while in New York. Uh, my mom was out here in Philly. She was married already. 15:01:28:14 - 15:04:55:00
Lisa: When you look back, what, how would you describe your feelings about your childhood?
Debbie: Well, um, my childhood, um, you know, was very supportive, uh, it was loving, uh, I come from, uh, a family that's very close, um, you know, we were very close, uh, knit family. Um, I loved my brothers, uh, you know, brothers and sisters, we all looked out for each other or, um, you know, I was the only sister so, uh, I, you know, they always looked out for me, uh, even though I had younger brothers and older brothers. Um, you know, and, uh, they didn't treat me any differently, um, my brothers, um, because of my disability so, uh, I was involved in a lot of the activities as I told you, uh, yesterday. Um, my brothers loved to play, um, basketball and, uh, baseball and, uh, I believe I forgot to tell you in one of my school years when I was playing in gym, I played, um, I loved to play basketball. Not basketball, it was baseball. Uh, we had gym, we had gym, um, when I was younger. Uh, we had, uh, we played baseball so, and I loved baseball. I was pretty, I was a pretty good hitter then. I was first baseman, uh, so that really got us, got me into sports, uh, today cause the way my brothers loved sports. Basketball was their thing and they played baseball. Uh, that and when I was young that's what really got me into, into playing or and I was also in the Special Olympics around my younger time. I can't remember the year or around that, um, you know, when the year that started but I was in the Special Olympics back in, in my younger days. Um, my teenage days, I think.
15:04:56:12 - 15:05:54:06 Lisa: Would you, would you describe your childhood as a happy one?
Debbie: Uh, yeah, um, most part, um, family has, had their own, we had our own, uh, issues or things that come up but for the most part, um, we were very happy and a sense of, you know, by brothers and sisters, uh, we, we always, uh, really, um, you know, I had some friends that I grew up with too so, uh, and they had their friends but, uh, basically, um, we really, um, got along very well. Brothers and sisters and things, looking out for each other.
15:05:54:19 - 15:07:55:03 Lisa: Did you have any special hopes or dreams for your future when you were growing up? Debbie: No, because I didn't know, um, I didn't know what I was going, who I was going to be or what I was going to be. I had no idea, um, I just like, um, I was always wanted to learn how to, uh, I always wanted to, I wish, um, my parents did, um, put me into high school and go through that process which, because of, um, my parents went to the, um, the teachers meeting, I wasn't invited or I couldn't go. They looked I guess all my records and my scores and, you know, uh, they talked my parents into, um, putting me into, uh, trade school instead of going and maybe my grades wasn't high enough. I was not happy when I, um, because I wanted to go. I like school. I really do. I, you know, I looked forward to it, you know, and I guess that's the only upsetting part of it, uh, cause you lose what you don't use so I lost many, many years, um, and it was very hard.
About Debbie Robinson
Executive Director, Speaking For Ourselves
Education, Freedom Campaign, Institutions, Roland Johnson, Self-advocacy, Self-determination, Speaking For Ourselves