Success is the fulfillment of potential

My own dream of becoming a special educator began in a most unlikely place, on the Bremen, an ocean liner headed for Germany. At that stage in life I was an actress and thinking about starting college and changing careers. My companion and I were seated in the dining room with a family of three: a couple and their 26-year-old daughter, a woman with Down syndrome. Her parents were amazing individuals who accepted the unique qualities of their daughter and respected her as the young adult she was.

They had just given her a large German shepherd dog for which she was completely responsible. Seeing her parents’ patience as they taught her how to train the dog made a strong impression on me. I realized that with the right kind of teaching, every individual could succeed. I saw it wasn’t a question of individual potential, but rather, one of fulfilling it. That realization gave me the direction I sought, and from then on it was mere logistics.

Seeing the joy of persons who are given the necessary tools to do their best is thrilling. This thought was brought home to me in the comments made by former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin on her Facebook Page. She decried the depiction of a character with Down syndrome on “Family Guy,” a satirical animated series. Ironically, this series is on the Fox Broadcasting Network, the very network where she has just signed a lucrative contract. What Palin did not know at the time was that Andrea Fay Friedman, the actress playing Ellen, the character in question, has Down syndrome herself. Friedman, much like the pro-active family I met on the Bremen, had parents who encouraged her and gave her tools to lead a productive life.

Here is how the 39-year-old actress describes her upbringing, “We think laughing is good . . . to have a sense of humor and live a normal life. My mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way former Governor Palin carries her son Trig around looking for sympathy and votes.” Her obvious independence and positive attitude is what we want for all children. Those living with so-called disabilities can succeed, and in fact thrive, oftentimes achieving beyond others who do not face such daunting odds.*

Although they do not especially cater to special populations, several small rigorous schools in my area have proved to be just right for some very special students. A recent graduation speaker reminisced, “There is no price tag on what this school can teach you; in fact, there are hardly any words for it. The legacy of this school lives in its graduates. It extends beyond these walls into the world where the graduates choose to take it. It provides the students with the perfect set of circumstances to discover what they have to offer to the world and where their unique interest in knowledge will take them.”

By finding solutions for each child to succeed, this school has literally saved lives.

Although students with medical conditions may not traditionally be thought of as having special needs, this was not the case for one brilliant young lady suffering from a rare sleep disorder. Because of this condition, she was homebound, and for years unable to attend her local public school. When the correct diagnosis was finally made and proper medication prescribed, she was ready to go back to school. She caught up with the rest of her class by spending just one year in a nurturing school environment and was accepted to Carnegie Mellon University and Washington University in Saint Louis, where she received a baccalaureate degree, and returned to Carnegie for her master’s.

Another student supported in this environment is a gregarious young man who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. Until high school, he attended schools specifically for children diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. After successfully completing high school, the dream of a college education was one that his family could not have imagined. However, there are colleges that welcome and accept a diverse population of students, including those like this young man. How fortunate the college will be that accepts him, and I have full confidence that he will continue to make many strides over the next years. He is ambitious and wants to learn, and the other students and teachers will benefit from having an autistic classmate.

”My dream is to become a performer and a member of a theater group. With my gift of voice I hope one day to be a theater instructor. The only way that my disability would get in my way at college would be my hesitancy of getting involved with other people. However, at my current school I have made some great friends and have become a more fun person to be around. I am more self-confident and very independent. Since most students might never have met someone quite like me, they are sure to benefit, as am I.”

Equally inspiring is a young lady who had her first stroke while in elementary school, followed by several others over the years. She originally had her sights on a career in nursing, but carrying heavy equipment proved too difficult. Instead she found her niche as a child life specialist, working with children facing serious or terminal illnesses. This young lady describes the compassion she found in her long hospitalizations, and it is her plan to bring that same encouragement and support to others. What a loss if she had been waylaid because of her condition.

And just last week, on the way to my departmental office at Bucks County Community College, I saw one of our students being wheeled in her hospital bed, attached to several tubes. I asked about her condition and was told that it was from birth. One must honor her desire to learn and her desire to live life to the fullest.

Seeing this woman’s obvious determination made me think back to the time when I broke both my wrists and was feeling sorry for myself in Yoga class. I looked up from my mat and saw another practitioner, a beautiful young woman who was missing a hand. We have so much to learn from each other, and the more we sequester ourselves in a contained group of like individuals, the smaller our world becomes. My thoughts go to the Beatitudes of Jesus, as the Easter and Passover seasons begin.

”Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”

We have come a long way by incorporating those with special needs into the mainstream of life. There is so much more to go, and one day, I hope to see the example of Andrea Fay Friedman and countless others welcomed, and “special needs” replaced by all human needs: to be loved and find rewarding and satisfying work.