When you walk through the Henry Viscardi School, you invariably encounter smiling children of all ages, most of them navigating the halls in wheelchairs or walkers.
Jack Kemp, president and CEO of the Albertson school for children with physical disabilities and mental impairments, sees the school as an oasis of opportunity for these special students to learn academic skills along with essential life skills.
"The physical therapists and occupational therapists along with the teachers and parents allow these children to be liberated to learn," Kemp said. "They're not encumbered by barriers. We focus on their abilities."
Now observing the 50th anniversary of its founding, the school currently has a population of 185 students in grades K through 12, according to Kemp. They come from communities on Long Island, Westchester and New York City to attend the school, which is the only one like it in the New York metro area.
This year represents a triple milestone, as the school also observes the 100th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Henry Viscardi, and the 60th anniversary of Abilities, the non-profit organization Viscardi also founded to teach disabled World War II and Korean War veterans practical working skills.
Viscardi, who was born with abnormally short arms, began Abilities in a garage in Hempstead in 1952, relocating it to the grounds of the location it now shares with the Viscardi School five years later. His initial objective was to give physically disabled people like himself skills to enable them to be responsible for their own lives.
Today the school boasts a high graduation rate, with 70 percent of its high school graduates going to college.
"We're proud of our academic standards," said Kemp, who noted the students are also provided the assistance they need beyond the classroom. "We support them medically, technologically and humanly."
During a tour of the school, Kemp encountered C.J., a senior in a wheelchair who's been attending the Viscardi School since seventh grade. His next stop after graduation will be York College.
"It's awesome," he said of his experience at the school.
Kemp, who is the third head of the school, grew up as a paraplegic in North Dakota, where he experienced first hand the unequal education opportunities that existed for the disabled at that time. He later left a position as a partner in a Washington, D.C. law practice handling disability rights cases to take the job.
Viscardi spent most of his life as president of the school and was president emeritus until he died in 2004.
The campus has expanded considerably over the years, adding components to the Viscardi School and Abilities campus. The Nathaniel H. Kornriech Technology Center provides the use of assistive technology for education and employment of people with disabilities. The Smeal Learning Center contains a fully accessible conference center with video teleconferencing and web-casting.
Classrooms are equipped with Smart screens displaying information that can be readily downloaded to the laptop computers that sit on each student's desk.
"These kids are just like everybody else. Most of our kids can't walk. Many of them can't speak. They use augmentive communication devices," Kemp said. "You put an iPad in front of them and they're home."
Some high school seniors need supplemental academic work to qualify to be graduated.
Frank Brigante, a teacher in the technology center, is one of a crew of instructors who use technology to help high school students gain the academic skills they need.
"We can train them and help them with what they may want to do," Brigante said.
In mathematics classes, Viscardi students learn shopping skills in the tech lab. In English classes, they learn to write letters to the editor. Social studies sessions are issue-oriented as students gain debate skills they might eventually apply to public meetings they attend.
"Every student wanted to learn how to cook," Brigante said, so they were taught how to do so in a disabled-accessible kitchen.
They take weekly yoga classes to relax them as well.
They're also learning to help others. Students from the Viscardi School do volunteer work among elderly patients at the Parker Jewish Center in the North Shore-LIJ complex.
"The hope is they'll continue and realize they can do it," Brigante said.
Students engage in regular gym activities as well in what Kemp calls "the best adaptive sports program in the country. They compete in all sports and also swim in the school's pool.
High school students gain practical experience by working in the school's UPS store and its This-and-That clothing store set up by the Gap.
Education for the disabled changed dramatically in 1975 with the passage of the federal Individuals Education Disabilities Act, which mandated education opportunities for disabled students equal to those for non-disabled students. But maintaining educational support for the disabled continues to be a struggle.
Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to cut $98 million in education aid to 4,201 schools such as the Viscardi School. Kemp talked to Cuomo, asking him to consider what would happen to Viscardi students if they weren't properly prepared to cope in the real world.
Ultimately, state Sen. Jack Martins and other members of the state Senate were able to restore funding. But the school relies heavily on private contributions to maintain its programs.
"We have a big responsibility to raise money," he said.