I’ve always said that behind every person with a disability is a parent or caretaker — someone who fights for them, advocates for them and cheers them on when the going gets tough. That’s why, when we talk about living with a disability, we can’t leave out our parents, who are a huge piece of the puzzle. I asked my mom to write a few words about her experiences over the years, especially since the ADA was passed when I was only eight-years-old. And, well, write she did…
I got really side-tracked when I looked up the Americans With Disability Act on Google just now. I guess I never really realized the broad, sweeping changes this act brought to life for people with disabilities. I only realized the implications for our little family and didn’t ever bother to investigate it any further than it applied to me. I say “shame on me” for that!
However, after thinking about it for a minute, I realized that the reason I was so narrow-minded about this is that having a handicapped child, prior to the ADA, was one scary proposition. When Melissa was born, we had no idea what was in store for us, or for her, and we most certainly didn’t realize that there would be so many obstacles out there, both for her and for us as a family as she grew up. Obstacles that were personal, social, educational, medical and occupational were areas that we never realized would present such hurdles. All we knew on August 4, 1981 was that the most precious little red-headed girl had come into our lives and we were going to do right by her no matter what happened!
When it was time for preschool, I wanted to enroll Melissa into Northern Illinois University’s child care, since Brian and I were both affiliated with the university. There was a lot of discussion prior to Melissa starting school there. I had to go with her, at first, as her assistant because at the time, she was the first child with special needs to attend. Nowadays that would never happen, Melissa would have been assigned an assistant right away.
When Melissa began elementary school, there was no accessible way for her to get into the building. The ramp still stands that was built just for her; we were lucky to have that done, as that was a couple years before the ADA went into effect! Every year was scary for us in worrying that Melissa wouldn’t be assigned an assistant and would be taken out of the classroom. With the ADA and the “least restrictive environment” mandate becoming the norm in education, she was lucky to always have someone able to help her by her side and it didn’t have to be me! I mean, c’mon, no preteen or teenager wants their mom going to school with them!
In high school, we could easily see the effects of this act. When the elevator was broken, Melissa’s whole class was moved downstairs so Melissa wouldn’t miss anything. Buses had to be handicapped accessible, even for just going on a field trip. A ramp was put in for her when she sang on the stage in choir and when she graduated.
In college, Melissa got by really well, as by then, things were becoming second nature regarding disability awareness at state schools. When Brian would go to help her use the bathroom at lunchtime, a special unisex bathroom was put in (of course, years later, Melissa told me that she could have gone to the bathroom by herself, but she and Brian liked the lunchtime check-in!). The university got her the special desks she needed and made sure she could get to her classes. She had the accessible bus and the services of the Center for Accessibility Resources too.
But, even though things went relatively well for us, it was still a scary time and not a day went by that I didn’t worry that life would be so hard for Melissa. I guess that was a lot of wasted time worrying on my part! There have been many times when we weren’t sure what to do, how to get something we needed or how to get somewhere we needed to go, but we always managed to figure it out or find someone who could help us figure it out. So, the moral of the story, I guess, is that we all have challenges in life and still have a duty to ourselves and others to live the best life possible.
So today, no matter your challenge, tackle something difficult and see what happens. It’s truly empowering! I am so proud of Melissa and her can-do-it attitude, and I thank all of you for reading her blog so faithfully! And, thank you, Melissa, for letting me do this guest post! 🙂