Zirpoli: In memory of Amber Tatro

I did not know Amber Tatro personally, but as a college professor in the field of special education, I’ve been talking about her for over 30 years.

Tatro was born on Oct. 9, 1975, with spina bifida. Depending on the type and severity of this condition, spina bifida may be associated with several challenges. For Tatro, some paralysis in the lower part of her body presented her with the challenge of fully emptying her bladder when she urinated. By being catheterized (a thin catheter is inserted into the person’s bladder via the urethra to allow urine to drain from the bladder) every few hours, Amber avoided the frequent bladder infections and other issues sometimes associated with her condition. Most children and adults needing this procedure learn to self-catheterize, requiring a few extra minutes in the bathroom.


Tatro was born the same year that Congress passed Public Law 94-142, one of the most significant laws in special education mandating that all students, regardless of their disabilities, have the right to attend public school. Prior to this law, individual states and school districts had the authority to decide who would (or would not) be allowed to attend our public schools. This new law also required that schools make appropriate accommodations and provide “related services” for students who had additional special needs that might otherwise prevent the student from accessing and participating in their education program. A related service might include, for example, an accessible school bus for students using wheelchairs or a speech pathologist. Tatro was 4 years old when she started school and still needed someone to help her in the bathroom with her catheterization procedure.

Tatro’s public school in Irving, Texas, refused to provide the extra help. They stated that catheterization was not covered under the new law as a related service because, in their opinion, it was a medical procedure.

Tatro’s family sued the school district in 1984 and won a unanimous 9-0 Supreme Court decision in her favor. The court ruled that school systems needed to provide students with special needs the services and supports they needed to attend, participate and remain in their education program. Otherwise, most students with special needs would be excluded from public educational opportunities.

A few educational notes: Catheterization is not a procedure that requires a medical professional to complete. Thousands of young children (and their parents) with this condition learn to complete the procedure as part of their normal bathroom routine. Second, the majority of people with spina bifida and other spine-related disabilities are not developmentally disabled, and they are capable of independently taking care of their own physical needs. Third, every case of spina bifida is different. The differences among people with spina bifida depend primarily on where along the spine the injury is located, as well as the severity of the break in the spinal cord. Some people have only a partial break in their spinal cord with various levels of functioning below that point. Others have a total break which leaves them paralyzed below the break. More information about spina bifida may be found at

Tatro graduated from MacArthur High School in Irving and walked across the stage with her braces and crutches. Sam Roberts, who wrote an obituary for Tatro in The New York Times (yes, she was that famous), stated that she received a standing ovation. Roberts reports that after graduation, Tatro worked as a teacher’s aide and also volunteered as a receptionist at an agency for children with disabilities. On Aug. 8, at age 42, Tatro died at a Dallas hospital after complications from infections, a common issue for some people with spina bifida.

I can’t help but think of the thousands of lives that have been positively directed because of this young girl and the courage of her family who challenged the decision of a school district to deny her an education because of her disability. The Tatro case improved the educational opportunities for millions of children and challenged the attitudes of our schools and communities about the educability and potential of all people with disabilities.

Importantly, because of the advocacy of Congress and the Supreme Court at the time, millions of children with disabilities were transferred from institutions to their community schools and neighborhoods.

At the same time, I’ve heard many people in my field ask the question: How would Tatro’s case fair with today’s Supreme Court? Would Public Law 94-142 have any chance of passing in Congress today?

To Amber Tatro and her family, thank you, for standing tall when others would rather you stay seated, quiet, and out of the way.