My dream has always been to do something special for those of us with intellectual disabilities. As President Kennedy said, “Do not ask what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I see my new role as a JP Kennedy Fellow as part of what I can do.
In February, I started a new job on Capitol Hill. I am the first ever Fellow with an intellectual disability selected by the JP Kennedy Foundation Board of Trustees. I’m now working on the Hill with the Ways and Means Committee staff.
My first day on the job got delayed with a snowstorm, and for the past two weeks, it has been a tough commute with delays and cold weather. In contrast, the welcoming attitude of the staff has been warm and inclusive.
I’ve already attended a hearing on Social Security and its impact on people with disabilities. My job is to learn as much as I can about policy and legislation in Congress and support the Committee to the best of my abilities.
At age 37, I am well-prepared for this job. Early in my life, 35 years ago, I was also the first child to be mainstreamed at the Waisman Early Childhood Program (WECP), the first preschool center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The program is a model for meeting the needs of a developmentally diverse group of young children.
Up to one-third of the enrolled children have a special education need because of a developmental delay or disability. When I attended the program, I was one of two kids with disabilities -- one with Autism and me with Down syndrome.
We had the best teachers and researchers. The center is affiliated with the researchers and clinicians who work on topics related to human development, developmental disabilities, and finding educational approaches to give children a jump-start in life. They were certainly successful with me, getting me started on the right foot with social and communication skills. We need more programs like the WECP across the country.
My fellowship would have not been possible without the help of many who took me seriously early on in my life: my family, siblings, friends, teachers, and mentors. They all believed in me and taught me to be self-sufficient and independent.
My interest in human rights, justice, and equality became even stronger when I joined Special Olympics. I believe in the opportunity for each person to reach his full potential.
Eunice Shriver, the sister of Joseph P. Kennedy, founded the Special Olympics Movement because she believed in us, those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In one of her speeches at the World Games in Indiana she said, “The right to play, you have earned it. The right to have a job, you have earned it. The right to live in any neighborhood, you have earned it….” She transformed the way the world perceives people with intellectual disabilities. Her son Timothy Shriver followed in her footsteps and is leading a global movement to change hearts and open minds of people all over the world.
I am proud and excited about being selected as a Shriver International Global Messenger spreading the message of hope and determination that athletes showcase in local, national, and international sports. This summer is another opportunity for global competition at the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles. Join us in Unified Games and celebrate the capabilities of those among us with intellectual and developmental disabilities. We showcase courage and sportsmanship with our oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” People with intellectual disabilities do not want pity; we want respect, inclusion, and the opportunity to reach our full potential like any other human.
Looking to the Future
This year, I am dedicated to supporting the Ways and Means Committee with the attitude and resolve that Eunice Shriver had. I want to cut through partisanship and aim to find ways for people like me to be contributing members of our society. I hope to open doors for others to follow.