When Camphill Special School at Beaver Run first opened in December of 1963 the world was a much less supportive place for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Pennhurst, an institution that gained notoriety for its crowded conditions and abusive treatment of individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities, had been open for six decades. Despite revelations of mistreatment in the late 1960’s, its doors didn’t finally close until 1987. Pennhurst is a twenty minute drive from our school, and if you had made that trip in the 1960s or 1970s you would have visited two entirely different versions of the world.
Pennhurst’s school shut children away from society. It labelled them, depersonalized them and institutionalized them. A huge bureaucratic system kept them fed and sheltered but held no higher aspirations for the unfolding of their potential. The enormous buildings were overcrowded and caregivers were undertrained and resourced.
Meanwhile, at Camphill Special School on a hillside in Glenmoore, small houses were established around a beautiful new schoolhouse that would create a new kind of space: a children’s village. Small groups of children with disabilities lived with families of staff members and volunteer coworkers, attending school, performing plays, making music and learning to navigate daily life in friendship with those who shared their days with them. Camphill was as much a community as it was a school. Graduates of the school from those early years still remember it as a very special place. It was a second home where they could learn about life and build confidence. It became a foundation for all that followed.
The decades have rolled by and legislative changes have brought wave after wave of progress to individuals with disabilities. Society no longer seeks to exclude those who are different, and whenever possible children with disabilities attend regular schools, living at home with their families and receiving the support they need at home. The model that Camphill built in the 1960s is still needed: there are children whose needs cannot be met by the regular educational system and who need extra support and encouragement. We continue to be there to meet the needs of these children and their families. The life-sharing, small scale model of the 1960s is still very much alive and well. Thankfully we have become a powerful option that is now part of a system that takes the child with disabilities seriously, and honors their potential and the contribution that they can make as citizens.
In a certain sense Camphill Special School is no longer ‘special’. We include children in a life sharing community when they can’t easily be nourished in the regular education setting. As such we are a resource within a larger field of practice that now understands our children. We are simply another school. Whilst the Waldorf programs we run are unique, and the community life that embraces the school is still present and profoundly transformative, we have decided to take the ‘special’ out of our name and to become known as “The Camphill School”. Nothing essential about the school has changed, but we feel that the world has caught up with us. And for that, we are truly grateful.