For a while in the 1970s, Esther Streed, professor of education, made almost weekly drives from northeast Iowa to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital to get care for her daughter. She would spend each six-hour round trip deep in thought. Her main theme: How can I make this better?
Since then, Streed has devoted her life to finding answers to that question—fighting for improved services for children with developmental disabilities, including her own daughter Angi. Her activism led to years on the board of an advocacy group, dinner at the Clinton White House and motherhood for 14 foster children.
“If I were going to sum up all those efforts, I’d say they resulted in having parents anywhere be able to access other parents,” Streed recalls. “To have that mutual experience—unique in many ways but mutual in the fact that your child is going to face the world with challenges and assets unlike most other children.”
Streed began her career as a junior high home economics teacher. Even then, she was drawn to children with disabilities. When the special education teacher brought her kids to Streed’s classroom three times a week, she wasn’t allowed to help because she wasn’t licensed. But Streed loved to watch the children and decided to take her first class in special education. Three years later, Angi was born.
Angi, now 37 years old, has mild to moderate mental retardation and also faces adult-onset psychiatric issues. “I think the initial shock was a little bit beyond words,” Streed says. “It’s the ambivalence of loving your child but wanting your child to function differently—being fearful of the challenges your child will face.”
It took Streed two and a half years to get a diagnosis for Angi, which was labeled a misdiagnosis when she was 18. At the time, services for children with disabilities were scarce, especially in rural Iowa. That’s why Streed had to make those long drives to Iowa City. Still, Streed says Angi was born at just the right time, as parents were beginning to fight for their rights and their children’s.
About 20 years before, parents were expected to leave their children behind in one of two state-run facilities. “I cannot imagine having to walk away from those places and leave your child each and every time,” Streed says. “The pain would be excruciating. “
The Fight Begins
Parents began to call for change, certain they could raise their children outside a facility—and that their kids could learn and deserved an education. In 1975—the year Angi was born—what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed, which required all public schools to provide education for children with special needs.
After Angi was born, Streed joined the movement, doing preschool home intervention and founding an organization that became known as Pilot Parents, which provides parent-to-parent support and is now a government-regulated agency. Streed also completed her master’s degree in special education.
With Senator Tom Harkin and his wife Ruth—with whom she became good friends—Streed got in on the ground floor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law passed in 1990 protecting the rights of people with physical and mental disabilities. Streed also served on the state board for ARC, a community-based advocacy group, for 14 years and the Governor’s Planning Council for Developmental Disabilities for 12 years, part of that time as the chair.
Streed gives all the credit for her accomplishments to her daughter. “Angi has given me a voice that I never would have known I had,” says Streed. “She has given me the courage to do the things I’ve done and have some amazing experiences.” One of those was dinner at the Clinton White House with 50 others in honor of their advocacy work.
A New Perspective
One of the biggest achievements of Streed and others like her has been the growing acceptance of people with developmental disabilities. “Society as a whole is more receptive than rejecting, and parents need to know that,” says Streed. “There have been beautiful changes in our society over the decades.”
Streed herself has certainly accepted children with disabilities. Over the years, she has sheltered 18 foster children, all but two of them with special needs. In 1992, she was named Iowa’s Foster Mother of the Year. “It’s a joy to be around children who are genuine,” says Streed. “There is nothing pretentious about them; they are who they are.”
Streed ended up adopting two of her foster children, and they now have children of their own. Angi lives seven minutes away in a house with two other women and 24/7 staff. She also participates in a day program she loves. “It’s been an intense, wonderful life,” Streed says of her years of motherhood. “I’ve been educated by every child that has been in my home.”
Streed allows her students at Central a firsthand view of Angi’s care—taking them to staffings, or meetings about her educational progress. “They get to see through the eyes of an adult with a disability,” Streed says of her students. “I think that’s really important for people who want to be teachers because they need to know what the future is like for their students.”
Angela Lowenberg Jones ’04 came to Central to become an accountant, but meeting Streed changed the trajectory of her life. “There was something about her I just loved,” says Jones. “I had such empathy for what she had experienced in her life.” Jones took every class possible with Streed and ended up as a special education teacher. The person-first, disability-second mentality she learned from Streed has helped her care for her own son, who has Down syndrome.
Streed hopes all her students learn that people with disabilities can be a positive force in society and bring strength to families and communities. Many of them, like Jones, are moved by the power of Streed’s love for her daughter and the lengths she has gone to for Angi.
“I tell my students that I was an educator before but that she put the spark and the passion in what I do,” says Streed.