Young children grow up. What happens during the early years for young children has a profound impact on the rest of their lives. The school a child attends, the support available from the family, friends and community. The perceptions of parents, relatives, and teachers; all of these make a great difference in the lives of children as they grow up.
Three young adults with disabilities have agreed to share their reflections on how their early experiences have influenced their lives.
Lara Parker, recently graduated from UNC Chapel Hill. She invited us into her home and shared how her early experiences influenced her independence. Lara wrote the following message.
[In Lara's words]
"I believe that my ability to live independently and to make choices and control my life evolved over a period of time. As a three year-old I attended a specialized program for severely handicapped children. No one in the center realized what I could comprehend. Every Friday my mother drove me 60 miles to the nearest therapist. One day she was driving with one hand and with the other holding a Richard Scary book in front of me. All of a sudden my fist touched the letters "mom." At that point to avoid wrecking she pulled over onto the shoulder of the road and asked me calmly if I was trying to say something. I spelled out mom, dad, and cat. Soon after that at my parent's request my preschool teacher tested me and discovered I had a sight-reading vocabulary of fifty words and could count to at least twenty. From that point I began the long journey to develop communication skills. When I was seven I entered a regular second grade class. I was leaving my protected self-contained world where every teacher and therapist knew me, understood my disability, and protected me from feeling different. But, I wanted to be part of the larger world; it was more fun there. Good decision-making must be developed over a person's lifetime and especially for a person who has significant disabilities. First came simple choices when I was quite young. What shirt do you want to wear? What drink do you want, and my choices were respected. When I picked out a shirt that clashed outrageously with my pants my mother did not override my choice. This gave my beginning decision-making real validity even if my taste in clothes left much to be desired."
I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to have choice and control in my own life. I can personally attest that dignity and personal satisfaction come from making substantive choices. My reality makes it necessary for me to depend on others to lift me, feed me, clothe me; yet I am not dependent. I am in control. My decisions have not always been perfect or wise but they have been my own. From unwise decisions I have learned wisdom from difficult situations I have gained maturity. I would like all people with significant disabilities to have some of the same opportunities to have control over their lives. In order for that to happen, individuals with significant disabilities will need to develop decision-making skills and their families will need to support them as they do this."
Karen Stallings, an early childhood professional, sees herself as a person first. Her disability second. Karen works as the Coordinator of the YMCA After School Program and as the coordinator of the Association of Self-Advocates of NC. She serves on the Transit Authority in Raleigh, NC and does volunteer work for other disability and community organizations. She is writing her autobiography. When she was growing up, her family saw her as ... Karen. In the seventh grade she began attending a regular education class. Karen believes that kids need choices - a satisfying way to communicate - love and support from their families - and to be included in their communities.
Karen states "I was brought up in a regular neighborhood and I ate with them in their homes and they included me in neighborhood games. My mom got me involved in Brownies and Girl Scouts. I had a wonderful wonderful kindergarten teacher and when I was in a class she treated me just like one of the children. But I was included with all the activities."
The most important thing in Karen's life is being married to Kenneth. They depend on each other. We asked Kenneth what he would say to parents or professionals working with young children. "The only advice that I have for professionals is don't ever tell a person that they can't do anything. Because that hinders them. If a professional tells a person that they can't do something then that person is going to believe it."
Needham Bryan has worked at Blue Cross Blue Shield for eight years and is a real voice for self advocates. He is President of the Association of Self-Advocates of NC and serves on the Board of the Arc of NC. In sixth grade he learned to stand up for others with disabilities, when kids at school made fun of another person. The most important people in his life are his family, and his wife Eva.
Needham and Eva share stories about their wedding..."Oh I think it was absolutely great. There was some people in tears I mean because, and I knew the pastor all my life." Eva adds, "It was actually a great wedding we had almost two hundred people there and I had a wedding dress that was made for me."
We asked Needham what made a difference for him? "I think friends are a great thing to have. That's what has gotten me so far is that I have had a lot of support from my parents and from friends. I think that's how I got to where I am today is the support around those people."
Needham talks about what he would say to parents of young children. "I would tell them to start early don't wait until they are in school to start teaching them stuff. Be caring. If you need help out there help is just around the corner."
Needham talks about his job. "As far as my jobs it is going pretty good. I deal with claims. What I have to do is take the staples out of them and then precode it, which is counting it up in batches, and get it ready for imaging. And I have a lot of friends there. So that really promotes me to go into work every day."
Needham talks about what's important for people with disabilities. "People with disabilities can live normal lives. I mean it might take them a little bit longer to learn than a normal person but they can live a normal life. Like for me I drive and I do a lot of things in the community. If you didn't know me you probably wouldn't think that I had a disability because I try to live as normal as I can with disability and get the best out of life I can."
Reflections on Early Childhood