Family’s fight for inclusive education highlighted through Brock’s Autism Collection

In 1994, Roxana and Joseph Hartmann were told their nine-year-old autistic son Mark would be placed in a separate education program, away from his classmates.  

Once he turned 13, he would then be transferred out of the local school district to a residential facility where he would continue his education. At 22, he would be sent to a full-time health-care setting for people with mental illness.  

The Hartmanns were a primary focus of the movement of ‘inclusion’ for educating children with autism in the U.S. during the period from 1990 through 2004. They were entangled in a five-year litigation with their local school board that ended in the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The records of their legal battle, along with other documents, videos and photos chronicling Mark’s medical and educational journey are housed with Brock University Library’s Archives and Special Collections as part of its growing Autism Collection.  

The litigation became international news and an example of how many school boards were not providing appropriate education for children with autism, said Joseph. 

“Mark was the rallying call for people in education to support inclusion,” he said. “Many organizations that represented children with a wide variety of disabilities supported us.”  

The Mark Hartmann fonds in Brock’s Autism Collection includes correspondence with school administrators, teachers and aides; individual education plans; test results and schoolwork from kindergarten to high school; transcripts and legal briefs from court trials; and other material that details Mark’s life and educational experiences. Joseph and Roxana also included a book the couple wrote together, A Live Controversy: A Story of Autism and a Family’s Determination.  

“There are many aspects of our experience that are documented in our collection of papers, tapes and videos,” said Joseph. “It would be a wealth of information for any researcher. You can really get a sense of what was happening to make this placement of inclusion for Mark a success.” 

During the five-year litigation with the school system, the Hartmanns removed Mark from his local school and enrolled him in an inclusive program 400 kilometres away. Roxana and Mark moved to be closer to the new school, while Joseph and their daughter Laura stayed in their family home. 

It was a sacrifice they were willing to make that reaped great rewards.  

Studio portrait photo of Mark Hartmann from 2008.

Mark Hartmann circa 2008.

“Mark did phenomenally well as a fully included student,” said Joseph. “Mark is totally nonverbal, so his autism is most evident by his inability to speak. Nonetheless, he’s a very intelligent young man. He was one of the few students with non-verbal autism in the U.S. to graduate from high school with a regular academic diploma.” 

Even more important to Jospeh and Roxana was that the inclusive education program taught Mark the coping and companionship skills needed to interact with others. 

“It’s about teaching them the power they have to become members of society — to be part of a community, to vote, to be able to work, to have friends, relationships, friendships, even getting married,” said Roxana. “This is the power of what is today full citizenship. And the power to have a job, drive a car and be able to live life just like everybody else.” 

With World Autism Awareness Day approaching on Sunday, April 2, Joseph said it’s important to continue educating people about autism and the benefits of inclusive education for children with disabilities. He shares some advice for parents of children with autism and for educators learning about inclusive teaching environments.  

“If you’re a parent — if you have a child with autism — don’t underestimate them. Never give up on them and always empower them,” he said.  

“If you’re an educator and you want to learn about inclusion — you want to learn about autism — Brock University’s Autism Collection is absolutely invaluable. Brock is becoming known as the centre repository for this kind of material. I hope a lot of people take advantage of it,” he said. 

Brock’s Autism Collection started in 2014 and includes everyday records of those who live or work with autism spectrum disorder. To learn more about the Autism Collection, visit the Brock University Library website or email David Sharron, Head, Archives and Special Collections at   

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