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Celebrating Disability Awareness with Inclusion & Visibility

Even though most Americans don’t celebrate Disability Awareness Month, there is never a time I am not reflecting on how my life has been influenced for the better by people with disabilities since June 19, 1989, my brother’s birthday.

When Teddy joined our family, we knew very little about Down Syndrome. At age 3, I understood only that my brother seemed like any other sibling: adorably cute and playful. I immediately loved him and the idea of no longer being the baby myself. To me, Down Syndrome was only a name and I just assumed everything would take care of itself.

But, behind the scenes, so much was taking place to ensure he was supported to reach his full potential. Early on, noticing a delay in Teddy’s speech, we signed up for family sign language classes at St. David’s Center for Child and Family Development. The five of us learned the basics: colors, the alphabet, a few fun songs, and signs to identify each of us. We memorized the signs for water, food, more, and other essentials so that we could communicate with Teddy, but more importantly, to give him a means to share his needs with us. Knowing he could tell us what he wanted or how he felt minimized his frustration and helped us to strengthen our connections as a family.

The hospital paired our family with another family who had a son with Down Syndrome who was a few years older than Teddy. They served as an instant and intimate source for my parents and their questions. My parents found a preschool and then a public school so that Teddy could not only learn, but also interact with his peers. With systems in place, he continued to develop important physical and cognitive skills.

E.X.C.I.T.E. campers learn about liquid nitrogen on 3M day. Photo courtesy of the PACER Center.

As he aged, Teddy had questions, like Why can’t I go to the same school as my sisters? or Why can’t I learn to drive? He wondered why he was different or rather, why he had to take part in different things. Over time, and with the support of his resource specialists, my parents, his babysitter, and others at his school, he found a community where he felt like he belonged. The Orono hockey team welcomed him as manager, which suddenly opened Teddy’s life to friendships with people with and without disabilities. He graduated from high school and took part in Orono’s Transition Program, where he discovered Opportunity Partners, a program that completely transformed his adulthood. He found a custodial job at a company near the airport and accessed transportation through Metro Mobility. He met friends and built a network that ensures he always feels supported and successful.

The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota recognizes the importance of these systems and supports in helping individuals with disabilities navigate and prosper in their communities. Recognizing that people with disabilities do not often get a seat at the table, the Foundation continues to make strides in giving voice to their needs and in closing the disparity gap that exists for those living with physical and mental disabilities. In order to better understand their needs, communities with disabilities are represented in the Young Women’s Initiative (YWI MN) as a group experiencing disproportional disparities in outcomes and opportunities. Built with community partners, based on listening sessions that included people with disabilities, and funded through Women’s Foundation investments, the Blueprint for Action proposes community-led solutions to advance opportunities and start eliminating barriers for young women in Minnesota. The Blueprint identifies areas that pose the greatest obstacles to the economic prosperity of the disability community and offers solutions to address those needs.

Girls learn how to assemble and code Lego robots during IBM day of E.X.I.T.E. camp. Photo courtesy of the PACER Center.

As part of YWI MN’s effort to increase access economic opportunity for all young women, including those with disabilities, and in support of the Blueprint’s recommendation to enhance career pathways, the WFMN awarded a $25,000 grant to The PACER Center’s EXploring Interests in Technology and Engineering (EX.I.T.E) Camp. Within the organization’s Simon Technology Center, the five-day EX.I.T.E program exposes middle school girls with disabilities to the high-demand, high-paying world of science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM). Through experiments and other hands-on activities, the participants learn about the sciences and engineering directly from technology experts working for IBM, 3M, Medtronic, Accenture, and C.H. Robinson. The camp creates a learning environment that teaches new skills, supports the needs of the young women, and fosters lasting friendships.

Over the last 29 years, I have seen firsthand the powerful impact organizations and systems can have on the lives of those with physical and mental disabilities. Often labeled by what they cannot do instead of what they have the potential to accomplish, nonprofits can and do help change the narrative of people living with disabilities. Through programs that were influential for Teddy, and those funded by WFMN, individuals with disabilities are afforded the access and opportunity to thrive and find a meaningful place and employment in their communities.

Girls learn about different product transportation methods during C.H. Robinson’s day of E.X.I.T.E. camp. Photo courtesy of the PACER Center.

We must transform our current systems of housing, education, and transportation to ensure that every individual living with physical and mental disabilities has the same access to programs and opportunities as my brother. I know that Teddy’s successes – moving out of my parents’ house, holding paying jobs, and building relationships – are due, in large part, to his participation in these organizations. Without their dedicated programming and one-on-one support, he would not be the person he is today. While transforming systems takes time, there’s no doubt that the world will be a better place when all individuals have pathways to economic opportunity, safety, and leadership.

By Alison Spencer, Strategic Communications Intern

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