Sunday, March 05, 2006

A Gold Medal Week for Disability Awareness

Wow! What an incredible week of public education on disability awareness. It seemed I couldn’t escape the remarkable news stories all week about the inclusion of people with disabilities. Are we finally making some progress?

As I reported in last week’s post entitled Customized Employment in Alaska’s Iditarod, Rachael Scdoris left the starting line today (March 4th) in Anchorage, Alaska to follow her dream to become the first legally blind athlete to complete the rugged 1,112 mile dog sled race. Scdoris, denied the opportunity to participate in the race twice by the Iditarod’s Board of Governor’s due to her visual disabilities, is presently competing in a field of 83 mushers in the world’s premier dog sledding event. Scdoris is competing in this race with technical support from a visual interpreter. The visual interpreter was authorized by the Iditarod's Racing Board so critical information about dangerous terrain along the route can be relayed to Rachael via two way radio from ahead. This creative accommodation enables Rachael to participate in the race with a higher degree of safety for both herself and the team of dogs she is leading.

Also, this week we witnessed another story of inclusion at the close of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy. During the closing ceremony, it is customary for the mayor of the Olympic host city to pass the 16 foot Olympic flag to the mayor whose city has been named to host the next Winter Olympic Games. The city chosen to host the 2010 games is Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

As a worldwide audience watched the live ceremony, Turin Mayor Sergio Chiamparino returned the Olympic flag to International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) president Jacques Rogge. And then, IOC President, Jacques Rogge passed the Olympic flag on flawlessly to Vancouver's Mayor Sam Sullivan. So what's the big deal?

What made this closing ceremony so interesting is that Sam Sullivan has virtually no physical control of his arms, hands, or legs and uses a wheelchair. So how would Sullivan grasp and wave this giant 16 foot flag in accordance with Olympiad tradition?
Well, in order for Sullivan to accept the symbolic flag, a special holster attachment needed to be custom made for his wheelchair. At Sullivan’s direction, a stainless steel holster was designed with technical support from two disability advocacy organizations and engineers especially for this occasion. After receiving the Olympic flag, Sullivan waved it proudly to millions of viewers from around the world live from his motorized wheelchair! Now how cool is that?

Sam Sullivan has a remarkable life story. He was involved in a skiing accident at the age of 19 that left him paralyzed and in need of physical rehabilitation. At the age of 27, Sullivan was still living in a rehabilitation facility and surviving on public assistance. According to news reports, he even contemplated suicide because of depression associated with his physical challenges. But an inner vision drove Sullivan to move forward with his life. A bright and creative man, Sullivan invented a sailboat and other equipment that would enable people like himself with quadriplegia to participate more fully in community leisure and recreational activities. Sullivan’s business success drove him to further his education and skills. He chose to attend Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and earned a degree in Business Administration in 1987.

Due to Sullivan's intellect and quit wit, he was encouraged to pursue a career in politics by a former deputy premier of British Columbia. He ran for a City Council post in Vancouver and won. And after serving the City of Vancouver as a Council Member for seven years, Sullivan decided to run for the City’s highest office. This past November, Sullivan narrowly won Vancouver’s mayorship in a tightly contested race.

When asked about the honor of representing his City at the 2006 Olympic Closing Ceremony, Sam responded to the media with self-deprecating humor: “I have had certain people in Vancouver questioning the wisdom of sending Vancouver’s worst skier to the Olympics,” he said jokingly. Then Sullivan shared a more deliberate message to an attentive media: “There was a suggestion that maybe somebody else could do it for me. I said that’s not the way I’ve ever dealt with things in my life. I will do it myself.”

Sullivan schooled a curious media with the following remarks: “Since my skiing accident, I’ve had to always improvise and find ways around my disability and figuring out how I can succeed in the world. This is just another example of how I am going to improvise.” Sam Sullivan calls it "improvising" and I would call it customizing. Either way, we share the very same message and point of view.
And how cool is it that someone with a significant disability is providing political leadership in a major metropolitan city in North America? No doubt, people with significant disabilities in Canada and the United States need more role models like Sam Sullivan.

And finally, I was mesmerized by an exciting news story this past week about a high school student with autism carried on a CBS news broadcast. A 17 year-old youth named Jason McElwain made national headline news when he scored 20 points in the final four minutes of Greece-Athena High School’s final home basketball game this season. McElwain's stunning performance included six long distance shots from three-point range!

What makes this story so intriguing is that Jason McElwain is not a regular member of his high school varsity basketball team that is headed for State competition in New York this weekend. Instead, Jason has served loyally as the team's basketball manager this past year. According to news reports, McElwain was considered too small to participate. Apparently, the team decided to let Jason dress for the final game of its season and Greece-Athena’s Head Coach Jim Johnson put Jason into the game with only four minutes remaining. Johnson hoped that Jason might score a basket to end his basketball career with the team. Instead, McElwain electrified the crowd at the game by scoring 20 points in a short four minute span.

The people who know me know best also know that I am an avid basketball fan. I don’t care who the player is or whether they are playing the game at the professional, college, or high school level. When someone hits six three’s in a four minute span during a game competition, it is Jordanesque! They are playing in a zone all by themselves. McElwain's performance was captured on video and has attracted attention from the national media. According to news reports, Jason has already received 25 movie offers to share his life story and four minutes of fame. What an unbelievable performance for a deserving young man.

So what did Coach Johnson have to say? “He’s been my right-hand man, he’s there every day and just getting him the opportunity to suit up was emotional enough for me. For him to come in and seize the moment like he did was certainly more than I ever expected. I was an emotional wreck,” Johnson said afterwards.

Basketball is just a small part of the McElwain story. I found it interesting that this particular high school was once cited by the State of New York for its lack of quality education opportunities for students with disabilities. The story acknowledged that Greece-Athena had come a long way in providing an inclusive education for students with disabilities like Jason. The high school principal and students interviewed also remarked how enriched the school’s student body is today because of these efforts at reform. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was enacted to open doors to an inclusive, individualized education for students with disabilities. And how wonderful it was to hear Jason and his peers speak candidly about how far this high school in New York had come in recognizing that social integration and inclusive education strategies really benefit ALL students.

It's defining moments like these when I realize that our collective advocacy efforts are slowly making a difference. Even five years ago, I don’t think I would have seen three unrelated news stories like these in the media within a single week. And frankly, I don’t think it’s coincidental. It’s just another strong indicator of what I shared in a post called The Butterfly Effect. In sum, it really matters what we believe, what we do, and what we say. Significant social change usually begins quite slowly but once it builds up enough momentum it reaches a point of no return. And the social change can no longer be stopped because its random but significant effects create a mosaic that influences the thinking and behavior of the general public.

Whew! It was a week of Olympic proportions indeed. And score it as a solid victory for the inclusion of youth and adults with disabilities. It’s stories like these that go a long way in communicating our core message to millions of people around the world. That is, what looks to be improbable is often quite possible with the right goals, creative planning, opportunity, and support.
If you are interested in watching the news video piece about Jason McElwain and seeing him nail a couple of those three-point shots, here is the direct link to the CBS News Web Site.


Blogger Don Lavin said...

Just a quick update on the Jason McElwain story. I guess McElwain is getting much more than his 15 minutes of fame! Yesterday, Jason met with President George W. Bush during his visit to the State of New York. The President mentioned seeing the news report and how he cried watching the replay of Jason's performance.

With the news media looking on, McElwain told the President that it was such an honor to meet with him. The President, who referred to Jason playfully as "JMac," said with emotion in his voice: "No, the honor is mine."

9:05 AM  

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