[Full disclosure: I have been compensated for writing this post.]
Has someone ever told you that you can’t do something that you want to do? If you’re a parent of someone with special needs you may have heard it in a different way. A school official may have said, “That’s not the way we do things,” or “It’s not in our budget.” They may turn it around and say “This is the way we’ve always done it.” As our children grow older and want to do things in the community we start to hear it in different ways like “We’re not trained to handle children like him.” Sometimes even our family and friends, who think they mean well, say things like “We thought it would be best for him if we didn’t invite him.” All of these sentences mean the same thing. To the outside world, your child is not smart enough, or strong enough. He doesn’t speak clearly enough or behave well enough.
He’s not “normal enough” to do what he wants to do.
My son has always wanted to be a rock star. Even though I don’t think the odds of him becoming the next Alice Cooper or Steven Tyler are in his favor, I do encourage his love of music and help him enjoy it to the best of his ability. He also likes to do things that he sees other people his age doing. When it came time to graduate from high school, people around him, including his mother, were talking about going to college. Suddenly it seemed like something he needed to do.
At the time, I was I in a graduate program in disability studies and mentioned his desire to attend college in one of my courses on inclusion. The room full of special educators was instantly quiet. Everyone stared at me, jaws dropped, then they stared at the professor waiting to see what she would say. After what seemed like hours, my professor looked at me and gently asked, “Do you really think he should be allowed to go to university just because he wants to?” “Yes,” I said, and that started a serious dialog on the pros and cons of people with an intellectual disability being admitted into post-secondary education. Some teachers thought it would lower the value of all degrees awarded by any college that accepted such students. Some just could not see how it would ever work.
But, to my professor’s credit, she was willing to talk more about it and eventually we came up with what we called an emancipatory research project that allowed my son to help design the study that took place while he participated in an undergraduate course on the social aspects of disability. When the semester was over he presented his work at the World Down Syndrome Congress in Vancouver with a poster session entitled “My Friends Will Help Me.”
Post-secondary schooling programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are becoming more common across the US. What we have to do now is change the mindset of people, parents and teachers, so that dreams don’t get crushed out of hand just because “It’s not the way we usually do it.”
I was reminded of this story when I was asked to write about a movie that will be released on August 26. GREATER is an inspirational movie based on the life of Brandon Burlsworth that reminds us that any dream is possible.
After watching the trailer I thought about how many of us face challenges thrown at us from different directions. Some roadblocks come from people who don’t believe we’re capable. Some come from the way society is structured to favor certain people over others. In our case, my son’s determination and my professor’s willingness to listen allowed us to break down the walls that kept him from reaching his goal.
I also happen to know a man who battles against these walls every day. Jason Reed, an extremely talented, highly educated man with a heart of gold helps children of all ages and backgrounds reach their goals of becoming dancers and entertainers, regardless of their ability to pay for lessons. He also throws in some valuable life skills and a respect for education while he’s at it.
Everyday heroes like my professor and Jason Reed do exist. We just have to have faith, courage, and maybe a little help from our friends so that we learn not to accept no (in whatever way people frame it) for an answer when it comes to our dreams.
Have you, or your child, overcome obstacles to make your dream come true? I’d love to hear about it!
Also, if you check out GREATER, I’d love to hear your reaction to the movie!