Linda Bidabe moved others.
A Kern County special education teacher who railed against the status quo of relegating some students to wheelchairs or beanbags, Bidabe developed an innovative and groundbreaking line of equipment in the 1980s that transformed the lives of children and families with one simple goal in mind: to get kids moving.
“I was impatient. I wanted results — not just for my sake, but for the children’s too. I knew enough to know that if I couldn’t help them develop some basic skills — soon — their lives were at stake,” Bidabe wrote in her 2001 memoir, “No Ordinary Move.”
Bidabe, whose program transcended her Bakersfield classroom and became the global nonprofit MOVE (Mobility Opportunities Via Education/Experience) International, which has helped countless students gain mobility, died late last month after a short bout with cancer. She was 72.
‘I WANTED TO TOUCH LIVES’
Born to Wilbur and Ethel McPherson on July 31, 1945 and raised as a Kansas farm girl, Bidabe never had aspirations to become a special education teacher in California. She wanted to become a doctor, practicing medicine “for the love of all humanity,” she wrote in her memoir, but a visit to a job fair during college changed all that.
She interviewed for a job teaching high school English in Tehachapi, but the recruiter insisted she was overqualified for the job. Her grades were too good. People with GPAs like Bidabe’s wouldn’t get along well with others, and they’re too ambitious, often spending too much time and energy trying to “better their lot,” Bidabe recalled the recruiter telling her. She insisted she get the job, and not long after she was on the road for California.
But when she arrived, she found herself unchallenged. The students were uninspired, unenthusiastic and lacking in creativity.
“I wanted to touch lives. To make a difference. To effect change,” Bidabe wrote. “I wasn't moving or shaking anybody. I was not influencing the course of the stars, not even swaying the direction most of my students were headed.”
She quit at the end of her first year and took a job supervising field workers in a pear orchard for a year before her husband, Martin — who was busing special education students to and from school at the time for work — suggested she work with his students at the Development Center for Handicapped Minors in the late 1960s.
She took a tour. She found students in diapers and others with food-stained T-shirts. By the end of the day, one student had thrown-up on her. Bidabe didn’t run. She was excited by the challenge, and the potential to blend her two passions: education and health.
“These children need me,” Bidabe wrote. “Now, I had a chance to do something. The best of both worlds, for the scientist in me as well as the humanitarian.”
A REVOLUTIONARY CURRICULUM
It was at the DHCM that Bidabe discovered the students she was caring for — many of whom would have been institutionalized in another era — were historically treated without dignity or respect. She described feeling “powerless” in her own classroom, and more akin to a nurse than an educator. She felt like her classroom was merely a place for parents to drop their kids off on beanbags during the day before picking them up after work.
That lack of dignity was evident even in the building where they went to school. It was a converted barn at the Kern County Fairgrounds that’s real purpose was to house exhibits during the fair, Bidabe wrote. When the fair came to town, DCHM was ousted. She described it as a “warehouse for kids.”
“The conventional wisdom at the time, well, it sucked. It was that there wasn’t much we could do for these kids,” former Kern County Superintendent of Schools Larry Reider told The Californian on Monday. “Linda turned that upside down, which is what MOVE was all about. It gave people dignity and respect.”
It started when she met Tommy, a little boy with muscular dystrophy who one neurologist described to Bidabe as “just plain retarded.” He was cast aside on a mat on the ground most school days. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t talk.
But one day Bidabe caught Tommy’s eyes following his classmates playing a game of tag.
She leaned down next to him. “You wish you could run and play with the others, don’t you?” she asked him. He flapped his hands in excitement as Bidabe’s hands flew to her mouth. She gave Tommy hope of something that couldn’t be delivered — at least not yet.
“I had set Tommy up, let him down hard, and now I was going to have to come up with some way to make reparations,” Bidabe wrote.
She began engineering what would become the prototype pacer and inspiration for MOVE International. Crudely constructed from discarded aluminum walkers, duct tape and broomsticks, Bidabe set Tommy inside the framework. Moments later, he was racing for the hallway, arms waving, voice shrieking. He was running so fast that Bidabe had to take the spare tire out of her car and attach it to her makeshift walker to keep it from tipping over.
Tommy “had come to life,” Bidabe recalled in her memoir. “He had found his wings — in the shape of some duct-taped, bent aluminum tubing.”
RAISING THE BAR FOR KIDS
Until that point, teachers hadn’t embraced curriculum that challenged developmentally disabled students, said Dave Schreuder, a former executive director of MOVE International.
“Linda always had high expectations for these kids and could see things nobody else could see,” Schreuder said.
Bidabe’s revolutionary practices would go on to change the lives of hundreds of thousands more developmentally disabled students just like Tommy. After former Kern County Superintendent of Schools Kelly Blanton saw the potential in the learning model, implementing it in local schools, students like Tommy began flocking to Bakersfield from other states, and even other countries.
“We had people move from the East Coast, Arizona and other states to Bakersfield at one time so they could enroll their children in the program before it became nationwide and worldwide,” Reider said.
Before the program had gained momentum in Bakersfield, Bidabe got pushback, Schreuder said. Oftentimes, it was from teachers who eschewed the work required to get students mobile and were accustomed to changing diapers and leaving students on mats or beanbags, Schreuder said.
Other times, parents worried kids attempting to walk for the first time would get hurt.
“Linda would say, ‘what’s worse? Letting them lay there and rot?’” Schreuder said.
After parents started seeing progress, the complaints were entirely different. Those who had developmentally disabled students in other classrooms began asking why their kids weren’t making the same progress as the kids in Bidabe’s class.
“What’s going on in that classroom?” Schreuder said they’d ask. “Why can’t my child get those opportunities?”
It became the foundation of Bidabe’s philosophy at MOVE International. Children should not be condemned to a life in a chair. All of them could learn if educators knew how to teach them.
“Linda really believed all children with disabilities should live before they die,” Schreuder said.
A GLOBAL MOVEMENT
Now the program boasts 26 model sites in the United States and the United Kingdom, and has been established in thousands of other classrooms around the globe. Bidabe became a sought-after speaker, traveling to the Middle East, South America and the United Kingdom to inspire special education teachers and provide them training on her program.
The program was later adapted for adults after a program manager at Bakersfield ARC, a nonprofit that provides job training, employment and support services for developmentally disabled people, asked Bidabe about it.
“The first question I asked her was ‘It’s great for children, can it work for adults?’” said Melinda Harrison, who worked at BARC when she met Bidabe in 1993.
Bidabe responded just the way Harrison had hoped: “Why not?”
The two got to work developing an adult program.
“She just had this uplifting spirit and was just always a go-getting innovator,” Harrison said. “We had individuals who had never put their feet on the floor, and the next thing we knew, they were running. So many people said: ‘They can’t. They won’t. Why try? It’s too much work.’ Linda never said that. Her famous line was always ‘not yet.’ She didn’t know the answer ‘no.’”
None of the acclaim and international attention for MOVE was ever Bidabe’s intention, said Julie Sues-Delaney, program manager at MOVE International.
“I one time asked Linda, and she said: ‘I just wanted to help the kids in my room,’” Sues-Delaney said. “Linda was just a simple farm girl who came up with a good idea, and her legacy will go on.”
Bidabe died Oct. 25 and is survived by her daughter, Tanya Bidabe Love and her husband, Tye, of Bakersfield, and their three children, Nathan, Lauren and Peyton; brother, Allen McPherson, and his wife, Shari, of Galana, Kan.; sister, Mary McPherson of Baxter Springs, Kan.; and Minta McPherson.
She’ll be remembered at a memorial service 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Francis Church and laid to rest Saturday in her hometown of Baxter Springs, Kan.