Alumnae/i Feature

Physical Therapist Paula Hickey Forney ’73 Dedicates her Life’s Work to Children with Disabilities

Photo of Paula Hickey Forney

Alumna Paula Hickey Forney majored in Physical Therapy because it allowed her to cultivate her love of science. What she did not realize, however, was that her career would put her at the forefront of the fight for disability rights and educational equity in the United States. To honor National Disability Independence Day, we share Forney's extraordinary journey.

Celebrated annually on July 26, National Disability Independence Day commemorates the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Established in 1990, the ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities.

"Decades before the ADA, we were already addressing disability rights from the perspective of children's educational access," says physical therapist Paula Forney. "We knew that we could not exclude children from being educated just because they have certain physical obstacles or they develop differently. In this way, the partnership between physical therapy and education became an innovative laboratory for thinking through disability rights and educational equity, in collaboration with changing federal educational mandates."

Forney was always interested in the sciences and loved working with children. As a New Englander who adores Boston, she came to Simmons in 1969, and planned to major in Biology on a pre-med track.

"However, I took a variety of sciences courses at Simmons, and eventually came across the Physical Therapy major," recounts Forney. "It seemed really interesting, and I liked how it incorporates many of the sciences and focuses on rehabilitating people, helping them be more independent. I realized that I could specialize in pediatrics and help children meet developmental milestones." Forney, who recently attended her 50th Simmons reunion, recalls the excellent faculty at Simmons and her wonderful affiliations with Boston hospitals, including Mass General, Children's, and Brigham and Women's.

The arc of Forney's career emerged out of a period of great social change. "When I was a Simmons student in the late 60s and early 70s, the world underwent tremendous transformations in terms of civil rights and sexual and political mores. Like many of my fellow Simmons students, I marched on Boston Common to protest the war in Vietnam. Our generation had radical approaches to change and equality, and I think this impacted how I thought about treating people with disabilities," she reflects.

When Forney and her husband relocated to Urbana-Champaign, Illinois in the early 1970s, her career went beyond the traditional confines of a practicing physical therapist. She used her expertise to support children with disabilities, particularly those with physical disabilities and hearing impairments, in a team effort with other related service personnel, teachers, and families.

The historical backdrop behind Forney's work is significant. "In this era, we were all reflecting on the educational opportunities of disabled children," says Forney. In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed into law the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law No. 94-142). This law guaranteed a free, appropriate public education (FAPE), to each child with a disability in every state and locality across the country. Subsequently, the law was reauthorized and became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

"I had worked with disabled children before, but now I was also supporting their teachers. We created customized learning plans with individualized objectives and goals for students with special needs," explains Forney. "This unexpected turn in my career changed my view of working with children. The child is not just your 'client.' As physical therapists, our work should also support children's teachers, families, and communities. I found that operating in a team-based and holistic way was extraordinarily effective for the children we were trying to help."

A concurrent shift in disability education was advocating early intervention. For Forney, this meant that she could apply her specialization in physical therapy to younger children, including toddlers and infants. After developing the therapy component for a statewide program that supported families of children with multiple physical and sensory disabilities, including vision loss, hearing loss, and deafblindness, Forney was recruited by Georgia's federally mandated statewide early intervention program, Babies Can't Wait. In this role, Forney trained other therapists throughout the state so that they could support very young disabled children and their families using natural routines in natural environments.

"There was a lot of pushback from therapists at the time," recalls Forney, "since this was new to the therapy field. Early intervention forced physical therapists to rethink their skills, share information between therapy disciplines, and support family needs/goals for their children. But what we were doing coincided with emerging research on the benefits of early intervention."

In Forney's experience, the early intervention model is measurably beneficial to children and their families. "As a physical therapist, we don't just observe what a child can or cannot do. We also evaluate their muscular development, stamina, and developmental level with an eye toward improving their mobility and sensory awareness. We can accomplish this in a fun way that incorporates play and natural daily routine activities like eating, bathing, dressing, etc., and at the same time we support their families."

Over her career Forney co-authored several articles, textbooks, and curricula about early intervention. The INSITE Model (1989, HOPE, Inc., Logan Utah) is a curriculum addressing educating children who are multi-handicapped or sensory impaired, and includes numerous case examples designed to help children gain basic skills, including bathing, dressing, and playing. She also co-authored At Home and at Daycare (1997, HOPE, Inc., Logan, Utah), which explains how daycare staff can support diverse children with special needs to perform functional activities. More recently, Forney co-authored Meeting Physical and Health Needs of Children with Disabilities: Teaching Student Participation and Management (2000, Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, Inc., Belmont, CA) and Understanding Physical, Health and Multiple Disabilities (2nd Edition, 2009, Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ), which serve as textbooks for graduate students who are training to work in special education.

As she was contemplating retirement, Forney decided to apply for a position in a local school system in Atlanta. She finished her final years of work back in schools directly supporting children, their teachers, and their families. "It was one of the best things I ever did, coming back full circle and reinforcing why I went into physical therapy to begin with — for the children."

"I tell my daughter that 'doors open, doors close.' Sometimes you walk through an open door and have no idea what will be beyond it, which is what happened throughout my career in physical therapy," says Forney. "Simmons prepared me well for these life-changing encounters."

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