By Sue Ellen Jares
January 11, 1982 12:00 PM

Ricky Wittmann, the retarded star in The Kid From Nowhere, a two-hour NBC movie airing Jan. 4, is, in fact, a kid from somewhere quite special—the North Hollywood, Calif. classroom of Phil Brody, 44. Hanging on Brody’s bulletin board in East Valley elementary school is a crepe paper tapestry showing boys and girls of many nations parading under the slogan, “All children smile in the same language.” In 1979, seven years after Brody began teaching at East Valley, he took charge of Wittmann and 11 other students, ages 11 to 14, none of whom could read that sentence. Their IQs averaged only 40, putting most of the class in the category of “trainable mentally retarded.” In most other schools these children would be taught to recognize perhaps 30 functional words, such as “walk” and “don’t.”

But Phil Brody has built the reading vocabulary of each of his pupils to an average of 1,000 words. His secret is to use the sign language of the deaf as a stepping stone to reading. Once a retarded student has made the connection between the sound of the word “cat” and the hand symbol for it, Brody has discovered that the youngster can be taught to connect the hand symbol with the written word “cat.” Suddenly the child is able to put the elements together and read. Normal students leap from seeing words to reading in one giant step; Brody has shown that by taking smaller, sequential steps, the retarded can achieve the same results before the teacher—and often the children themselves—gives up in frustration. “There are no breakthroughs,” Brody says, “just a slow, grinding-out process, a little bit at a time, and then in a flash a kid does something, and you feel really good about it.”

On a recent afternoon Brody’s students were mastering the lines of writer Dan Valentine: “…teach him that for every scoundrel there is a hero, that for every selfish politician there is a dedicated leader, that for every enemy there is a friend.” The children were not just speaking the words; they were simultaneously saying them with their hands. Brody emphasizes that he does not teach signing as an alternative to speech. The children must speak, sign and read each word. In this way the number of words they can verbalize increases dramatically. Their comprehension also seems to be rising, and Brody believes this is true because “so much energy was being expended before on their efforts to verbalize that there was nothing left over to understand what it all meant.

“Those kids know when they’ve made a real accomplishment,” Brody continues. “You can’t trick them—for example, praising them when they take a spoonful of eggs and hit their mouth one out of 16 times. The retarded show real joy when they have mastered something that’s hard for them.”

The parents of Brody’s pupils are delighted by their progress. Jo-Ann Unrein, the mother of 14-year-old Bobby, says, “Now he can go 45 minutes without supervision instead of 10, and he tells me proudly, ‘I’m slow but I can still learn.’ ” To prove it, Bobby will sign a word like Kentucky, then sit down and write it out. “Sometimes his fingers go a mile a minute in his sleep,” observes Mrs. Unrein. “I have to stroke him to make him relax.”

The son of a Chicago truck driver, Brody began teaching retarded children at 28, after majoring in finance at Roosevelt University and finding that business did not interest him. He hit on the value of signing in 1978, when he met a deaf college student who was observing classes at East Valley. “I learned sign language to communicate with her,” Brody recalls. “Then I thought I should try it with my students, because I sensed their frustration at not being understood. As they learned the signs it occurred to me it would be a good way to teach them the alphabet, and from there I moved on to words. Then they all started to read. I never expected it to go that far.”

Divorced since 1976 after a 10-year marriage, Brody spends at least 30 hours a week with his class. He concedes that “these kids aren’t going to be doctors” but disagrees with educators who say the retarded should be trained only for jobs they can handle, like janitorial work. “Since money doesn’t motivate them,” Brody argues, “they quickly become bored with most jobs. For me, the No. 1 priority is their happiness and self-esteem.”