How Everyday Inclusion Changes the Game

In the month of October, we celebrate Down Syndrome Awareness Month, a time for us to learn to see Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities as a gift. A time to focus on an individual’s abilities. A time where we educate our communities about ways to accept and include those of us with special needs.

Take for example, my new friends Erin Compton, 10, of Clarendon Hills; Becky Cavanagh, 10, of Clarendon Hills; and Callie Devine, 9, of Westmont. Erin and Becky are children, the same as their friend Callie or any other typically developing child. The quality that makes Erin and Becky different than Callie is that the two girls were born with Down syndrome.

A good group of friends is one that is built on inclusion and where acceptance is at the core of the friendship. When the three girls are together, they show the world how to accept each other for their own individual abilities.

“When they are together, none of them have special needs,” said Diane Compton, mother of Erin. “[That] is pretty spectacular.”

The time I spend with friends is similar to what this group of girls share. When my friends and I are together, it’s as if we don’t have special needs. Whether I’m with my friend Georgia Hunter, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome, or my friends Breanna Bogucki or Josh LeClaire, both diagnosed with autism, we just accept and include each other, special needs and all.

Erin and Becky first met when Diane started a reading group for children with special needs. Callie and Erin first met when Callie’s grandfather, Jerry Galvin, took Callie for a walk and stopped to play with Erin who was playing in her yard.

Soon after, they learned about Signing Time, a video series that shows children with special needs how to communicate using American Sign Language. Sign language helps to combat the frustration that one might have in communicating needs and wants.

Sign language became the ice breaker for Erin’s and Callie’s friendship. From the beginning of their amazing friendship, Callie recognized and valued Erin’s abilities.

“[Callie] has been amazing in figuring out how to manage and accommodate [Erin’s] challenges,” Diane said. “She has learned to accept that sometimes Erin needs downtime on a play date, and not to take it personally.”

When Erin, or others with special needs, need downtime, it does not mean they are being rude. This downtime simply gives Erin a little time to regroup.

The friendship between Erin, Becky and Callie is a shining example of what everyday inclusion looks like. It is kids being kids, enjoying their time together, laughing at each other’s silly jokes and singing their favorite songs.

“They’re really fun,” Callie said. “Sometimes they come up with ideas that other people don’t have.”

This past Sept. 25, the three girls came into the Special Chronicles studio for the taping of a new podcast episode.  During an on air transition from a break to the second segment of the program, Erin, Becky and Callie were playing with my family’s small dog. When the time came for them to come back on air, Erin needed some time to regroup. Callie and Becky recognized this and after a few short minutes, Erin was ready to go back on air.

The Special Olympics movement celebrated the sixth annual Eunice Kennedy Shriver Day, or “EKS Day,” on Sept. 26. On this day, we celebrated the life, legacy and vision of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of Special Olympics. This year’s theme was #LetsChangeTheGame, a time when we showed our communities and the world that those of us with special needs should be respected and included.

This past July, Maria Shriver and Special Olympics released a new challenge called “PLAY – #LetsChangeTheGame.” This simple acronym encourages every person in our community to Play, Learn, Accept and say “Yes” to including people with intellectual disabilities and talking to your children about inclusion. It is a tribute to Eunice Kennedy Shriver and in celebration of Down Syndrome Awareness Month that Erin, Becky and Callie shared their story. These three girls demonstrates a snapshot of true friendship to their communities every day. They also show the pure joy that that those of us with special needs can bring to our communities.

“I like them because they are my best friends,” said Erin.

Erin and Becky both have participated in Special Olympics rhythmic gymnastics, while Callie comes to cheer them on. This past June, they both participated in their first ever Illinois Summer Games.

It was on the Friday evening of the state Summer Games that I met Erin and Becky for the first time and was able to share their first Opening Ceremonies experience with them. However, I had first met Erin’s mom, Diane, 11 years ago when she was providing vocational training at my high school. It was during this time that Diane learned Erin would be born with special needs.

“You were such an inspiration to me 10 years ago when Erin was born,” Diane told me. “Even as a high school student, you taught me to never, ever limit possibilities.”

A month after competing at our state’s summer games, Erin broadened her possibilities even more, as she and her family headed to Los Angeles to compete in the national Miss Amazing pageant.

Through acceptance and inclusion, we can show the world how every person with special needs brings value to humanity. Join me and let’s change the game.

This article won first place for “Best Original Column” in the 2016 Illinois Press Association competition. 

This column was originally printed on Oct. 7, 2016 in the The Bugle newspapers.

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