Director of Programs, The New Brunswick Association for Community Living
I want to tell you a story about "Donny". I remember him all through elementary school, but it wasn’t until 6th grade that I really got to know him. You see, my 6th grade teacher knew that I was a good, quiet student; one who could handle sitting at the back of the class and not get into trouble. I sat beside Donny – a dark haired boy with snapping brown eyes. I remember liking his presence. He smiled, teased, laughed, and was generally a pleasure to be around. He also was the smartest kid in the class. I remember myself and some other kids in the class would quiz him, mainly because we thought we were witnessing magic:
Donny would laugh when we did this. His face would light up when he was the centre of attention. He loved basketball and running. He loved friends and school.
High school came and I rarely saw Donny. He wasn’t in any of my classes. I saw him floating the halls every so often. You see, Donny had an intellectual disability. He didn’t speak, instead he would use an alphabet and number board to answer questions or interact with people, he didn’t dress himself, he didn’t go to the bathroom by himself. What he did do in high school was walk the halls with other students who had a disability and pick up recycling. He sat with them in the cafeteria, he spent his whole day in a room, mindlessly doing tasks that a toddler would do.
I don’t remember Donny at prom, safe grad, or graduation. I haven’t seen him in close to 20 years. But I remember him in 6th grade. At 12 years old, I saw a competence in him that I knew surpassed my own, and that of many others.
I often think about Donny and wonder where he is, what he is doing, if he is being quizzed on his brilliance, or loved because of that smile.
As a teacher, I set out to change the world (as most teachers do). I wanted to be innovative, inspiring, encouraging, and impactful. I wanted to be one of those teachers highlighted on Oprah, or Ellen. I wanted this for all the wrong reasons. Because of this, I quickly realized that I wanted to do something different. I wanted to work "outside the box", so to speak, and try to use my skills and passion to effect change in my beautiful little province and city.
I suppose my life as a disability advocate started the moment my 6th grade teacher told me to sit beside Donny. My passion for disability rights and advocacy has continued throughout my life. This, however, leaves me a bit discouraged. I want to live in a world where being a disability advocate is a profession that is not needed because all people are included, valued, respected, and provided equal opportunities. I want to see New Brunswick as a fully inclusive province. A province that presumes competence with all of its citizens and is dedicated to supporting all New Brunswickers to reach their goals and live our their dreams.
If I have inspired anyone in my life, its only because there have been those before me who have given me inspiration. The children, families and adults I meet everyday inspire me to work harder, think better, and presume competence in all.
Donny changed my trajectory in life, and he didn't even know it.
He helped me realize that disability does not mean incompetence. They are not synonymous with one another. Our job is to ensure that this message continues throughout the generations and people with a disability are seen as contributors, not incompetent.
Disability Advocate, Reader, Writer, Cat-mom, answer-seeker, foodie, inclusion advocate