By Katherine Carol
It is not for the faint of heart.
It was May 24, 2004. The stadium at the local university was dressed in long folds of red and white cloth hung from ceiling to floor, framing both sides of the stage. These colors represented the East High School Angels, the crown jewel of the Denver Public School system. Mikelle’s brother, grandmother and grandfathers, many actors, legislators and athletes had preceded Mikelle’s walk down the aisle as her name was called.
As Mikelle accomplished her graduation, a quiet note in history was made. For among the springtime tulips that reached for the sky, there was my daughter, Mikelle, an orphan who couldn’t walk or talk, now not only a high school graduate, but also “Outstanding Senior”. On this day, she reached for an impossibly bright future.
With a burst of enthusiasm, she became the first of a new generation of students with disabilities to receive the benefits of a full and inclusive education. I believe Mikelle may have been the first in the school’s long history to reach beyond the confines of typical “special education”. Mikelle wore her red gown like a declaration of independence. She was not only an Angel; she was a pioneer forging a trail for others to follow.
Mikelle, as well as many of your children in Alabama, are among the individuals forging a new frontier in the civil rights landscape for people with disabilities. Like crossing a new frontier, reaching graduation is just one stop on the road to transition and a Full Life Ahead. Bring snacks. It’s an adventure!
Mikelle is now eleven years post-graduation. Her journey to adulthood has not been a straight trajectory; rather, it has been more like a wandering path with many peaks and valleys. Her numerous post-graduate accomplishments include:
- purchasing her own van
- renting an apartment
- buying her own condo
- talking to Congress about the right to work
- speaking at the National Press Club
- presenting at numerous conferences from California to North Carolina
- making and selling beaded bracelets in her own small bracelet making business
- publishing a book and creating her website.
Mikelle and I find ourselves pioneers once again, as we partner with other families and individuals with disabilities in hosting the 2nd Annual Families at the Forefront of Technology Conference.
In this blog series on transition from school to adult life, I will share with you what has worked for our family. I do want to emphasize that our family is as unique, as is yours. Some of our strategies may work for you, some may not. Conditions change and people have different strengths; but regardless of our differences, the goals of our special needs children drive the process.
It is natural for parents to be skeptical, fearful and even overwhelmed by your child’s transition into adulthood. Unlike “typically labeled children,” many young adults with special needs may need some type of support for many years after graduation, and in some cases, even the rest of their lives.
While transition feels risky, so does avoiding it. As parents, we transition, too.
Of course, we are concerned about our family member’s health and safety. We also worry about loneliness, about our adult children having enough friends and meaningful activities to fill your day. We fret over systems which fail to understand self-determination and communities which fail to fund supports at the same level as more traditional services such as group homes and sheltered workshops. The fact is that many of the traditional services for people with disabilities will be different in the future.
Today’s rehabilitation realities are ripe with change. Turnover in both executive management and direct support has kicked in to high gear as baby boomers are retiring. Just this week, I heard two stalwart leaders of community inclusion are soon retiring. Younger people will move in to take their place, but for how long? Younger professionals often jump from organization to organization in an effort to grow their careers or move on to new opportunities. It is unlikely that we will see people stay in the same job for decades, as prior generations did.
As a participant in several policy groups in Colorado, I can tell you both state and federal policies are undergoing extensive review and most likely will change at a rapid pace.
Ensuring your child’s safety comes from your active participation. Your voice matters. Without you, policy changes may not support your best interests.
Like the pioneers who settled this grand country, hold a dream for a better life close to your heart. Let it fuel your passion. Prepare for transition. Be persistent. Be patient (but not too patient). Expect results. Together, let’s explore the unknown future which lies before us in the 21st Century.
Come by an visit us at www.TheShiningBeautifulSeries.com
Next in this series: Simple but effective tips for preparing for transition from school to adult life.