After more than 60 years, I still have a strong image of the phantom classroom in the basement of my Boro Park public school. I don’t recall how I knew that this classroom existed. I never really saw the students. I just knew that they were there.

One day, when my peers and I were playing in the basement lunchroom, I asked who had left food wrappers on the table. Someone replied that it must have been those “strange kids” from the basement classroom.

Someone pointed out their classroom as we walked by. I tried to see who was in the room, but the door was closed. It was always closed each time that I passed it. In the seven years that I went to P.S. 131, I never did see any of those “strange kids.”

But I always wondered who they were, and why they were hidden away.

Fast forward about 25 years. A dear friend asked me to drive her to visit her daughter in upstate New York. She explained that at a young age her daughter had a very high fever. After that, her daughter was never able to function beyond the level of a three-year-old. When she reached age 15, her parents were unable to deal with her violent outbursts, and placed her in an institution.

Tall mountains and lush forests surrounded the institution, tucked away in the Catskill Mountains. Arriving at the institution filled me with sorrow. Four or five large buildings surrounded a small playground. There were bars on many of the windows. Very little grass, trees or flowers grew.

Despite the beautiful summer day, no one was outside, except a young man who just seemed to be wandering around aimlessly.

My friend pointed out a small building in the distance: it was the schoolhouse.

I recalled the phantom classroom at P.S. 131.

I brought my friend to see her daughter each summer for several years. I never went inside, but instead dropped her off at the door of one of the largest buildings. Each year, as I drove around the area, I wondered why I never saw anyone outside. It was very eerie.

One year, my friend asked me if I wanted to meet her daughter. I was afraid of what I might see inside, but I didn’t have the nerve to tell her that. “Of course I do,” I responded as enthusiastically as I could. The sorrow and dismay that I felt when I walked inside is indescribable.

The place was clean, and there were some pictures on the wall. The room we walked into was exceptionally quiet, even with approximately 50 people in it. As I looked around, I realized why it was so quiet.

People were sitting in chairs and wheelchairs around the perimeter of the room. Some sat quietly, staring into space. Some mumbled quietly to themselves. Others walked around the room as if in a daze. A television was on, but no one was watching it.

Walking back to my car, I again thought about the class of children in the basement of my school. They were no longer phantoms to me. They were real people. How many of the adults that I had just seen had been in similar classrooms? Would their lives have been much different if there had been the idea of inclusion all those many years ago?

The answer is a resounding “yes!” Today, children and adults with disabilities are integral members of our society. Children attend neighborhood schools, camps and social activities; adults are employed in the workforce and are included in a wide variety of social events. We have learned that when people with and without disabilities live and interact together, everyone benefits.