I would like to tell you about the journey that has enabled me to have the independence I enjoy today. From the time I was born, my parents had a vision for me like they had for my four siblings. The vision was that I would have a happy childhood — growing, playing and going to school with the other kids in my neighborhood. My parents felt it was important that I have the opportunity to become an active and contributing member of our community.
When I was two-and-a-half-years-old, I went to the nursery school around the corner from my house. The story goes that I was so happy there that my parents worked with my school district so that I could be included in my own neighborhood school starting in preschool. Now we call this “Inclusive Education,” but at the time it just seemed like the right thing to do. I never liked being called “special” because I just wanted to be one of the kids.
When I was little, I loved to dance and sing, so I went to the School of Visual and Performing Arts (SVPA), a magnet school in our public school system. Besides general education and resource classes, I was in many theatrical productions during my school years. In a school play, being chosen to be Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” was one of my happiest moments.
By the end of middle school, I had a “Circle of Friends” that was made up of family, teachers, classmates and friends. I loved when we met because I could share my dreams for my future. The Circle would help me figure out how I could make those dreams a reality. Although my biggest dream was to live in Florida and become a rock star, I also began to focus on the other things in life that were important to me and what support I needed to accomplish them.
One time in eighth grade, I was asked to speak at a conference about my dreams for the future. I discovered I liked speaking to groups of people and soon I was being asked to share my experiences with others. I have traveled as far as San Francisco, Baltimore, Seattle and Washington, D.C., giving keynote addresses and participating in national conferences. I tell people about how successful it can be to live an inclusive life — in your own school and community — when you have people who support and believe in you.