Greta Harrison

@bornfabulouspodcast | contributor
Super Contributor
I am a wife, proud mother, civic leader, writer, and podcast host/creator of Born Fabulous Podcast.

GAMUT Seal of Approval Identifies Adaptive Clothing for People With Disabilities

The date was March 24, 2022. I happened to be watching “The View” on ABC when Mindy Scheier, the founder of GAMUT Management, was being interviewed with her son, Oliver. GAMUT is the leading consulting and talent company with and for people with disabilities. My daughter Yassy happened to be off work that day, so I called her in to watch. She was captivated by Mindy and Oliver’s interview. Yassy was quiet, but her interest was clear. When a fashion show came on the screen showing GAMUT models, who all had disabilities, Yassy’s interest turned to joy and excitement. Yassy is 22 and has Down syndrome and autism. She is also one of the over 800 actors/models on GAMUT’s roster. She is fairly new to this acting/modeling world so seeing this was new for her. I told her that maybe one day she can model in a show like that, something she already was seeing and noting for herself. Representation matters, more than most people realize. Fast forward to this summer when GAMUT made an announcement to its talent community. It stated that a new GAMUT Seal of Approval ™ will be launched later this year and asked its talent roster to send in very short videos stating what that seal means to them. The video was released July 26th, the anniversary of the creation of the ADA. Yassy was on board immediately, as were many others. As a parent who knows that we have to step up to help create the world we want for our children, I have tremendous admiration for leaders like Mindy who take one need and not only solve it, they change the world for more than their immediate concerns. Mindy started Runway of Dreams, and later GAMUT Management when her 8-year-old son Oliver wanted to wear jeans to school. Oliver has muscular dystrophy and no jeans would fit over his braces. He also needed pants without buttons and zippers. Being a fashion designer, Mindy decided right then and there to not only solve that immediate problem, but to make fashion more accessible for all. Oliver is now a very fashion-forward 17, and GAMUT is growing leaps and bounds, just like he is. It was an honor to recently speak with Mindy and her amazing team at GAMUT about this new Seal of Approval. GAMUT Management was organically born when many designers, companies, and interested parties wanted to learn more about how to responsibly be more inclusive for people with disabilities after discovering Runway of Dreams. They were reaching out to Mindy Scheier and her team at Runway of Dreams, which is a non-profit foundation. A for-profit company was created, GAMUT Management, providing consulting and talent management. Now the third arm of GAMUT, accreditation, is being finalized. This crucial piece is the GAMUT Seal of Approval.™ For consumers who are in the marketplace for adaptive products, either for themselves or those they care for: this Seal means the product has been vetted by people with disabilities, caregivers, experts, and professionals in the community. GAMUT’s diverse and very talented team is making sure that proper criteria are developed for this seal. The team consists of core members: Mindy Scheier, CEO, Molly Kettle, COO, Jonathan Kaufman, Chief Strategy Officer who also happens to have a disability, and Kerri McBee-Black, Chief Research Officer. They also have an independent group of evaluators that will be fluid. Integrity is very important to GAMUT and the seal, thus the need for the evaluators to be independent of GAMUT. This group includes people with disabilities, occupational therapists, physical therapists, researchers, designers, product experts, and others. The goal is to have the actual seal officially launched and featured by companies by the end of 2022. GAMUT cannot reveal most of the companies currently trying to get the seal for confidentiality purposes. However, they are proud to announce that adidas Accessories (hats, bags, socks, men’s underwear) is on board to earn the seal. GAMUT’s list of corporate clients to date includes companies like Victoria’s Secret, Target, LVMH, Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive, and Kohl’s among others. Part of Gamut’s mission states: “GAMUT is rebranding the way people with disabilities are viewed, marketed to, and represented in pop culture.” While all of this is true, I want to add a crucial point. Every time GAMUT interacts with a brand, designer, or corporation they are opening the company’s eyes as employers. Gently, with genuine interactions and relationships, companies start to see themselves as employers who can employ more people with disabilities. They look at themselves and start to take a corporate inventory of how they can become more inclusive and accommodating to all disabilities. This is not something GAMUT is formally tasked to do, it is something that is part of their core beliefs and culture, that spreads to those they work with. Organically. Sustainably. Look at that list of corporate partners above again, and then picture the truly large impact this is having knowing there are other companies not listed, and so many more to come. On March 24, 2022, 17-year-old Oliver Scheier said these profound words in his interview with “The View.” “It boggles my mind every day that such an insignificant ask (the jeans he wanted to wear when he was 8) can turn into something so world-changing. It’s unprecedented.” He then praised his mother who he loves very much. That ask and world-changing movement for adaptive clothing now will include a mark of quality to reassure everyday people like you and me that a stringent set of requirements for creating adaptive products has been met. Kudos to GAMUT Management! Look for the logo in this article in stores near you soon, and support those truly inclusive companies!

GAMUT Seal of Approval Identifies Adaptive Clothing for People With Disabilities

The date was March 24, 2022. I happened to be watching “The View” on ABC when Mindy Scheier, the founder of GAMUT Management, was being interviewed with her son, Oliver. GAMUT is the leading consulting and talent company with and for people with disabilities. My daughter Yassy happened to be off work that day, so I called her in to watch. She was captivated by Mindy and Oliver’s interview. Yassy was quiet, but her interest was clear. When a fashion show came on the screen showing GAMUT models, who all had disabilities, Yassy’s interest turned to joy and excitement. Yassy is 22 and has Down syndrome and autism. She is also one of the over 800 actors/models on GAMUT’s roster. She is fairly new to this acting/modeling world so seeing this was new for her. I told her that maybe one day she can model in a show like that, something she already was seeing and noting for herself. Representation matters, more than most people realize. Fast forward to this summer when GAMUT made an announcement to its talent community. It stated that a new GAMUT Seal of Approval ™ will be launched later this year and asked its talent roster to send in very short videos stating what that seal means to them. The video was released July 26th, the anniversary of the creation of the ADA. Yassy was on board immediately, as were many others. As a parent who knows that we have to step up to help create the world we want for our children, I have tremendous admiration for leaders like Mindy who take one need and not only solve it, they change the world for more than their immediate concerns. Mindy started Runway of Dreams, and later GAMUT Management when her 8-year-old son Oliver wanted to wear jeans to school. Oliver has muscular dystrophy and no jeans would fit over his braces. He also needed pants without buttons and zippers. Being a fashion designer, Mindy decided right then and there to not only solve that immediate problem, but to make fashion more accessible for all. Oliver is now a very fashion-forward 17, and GAMUT is growing leaps and bounds, just like he is. It was an honor to recently speak with Mindy and her amazing team at GAMUT about this new Seal of Approval. GAMUT Management was organically born when many designers, companies, and interested parties wanted to learn more about how to responsibly be more inclusive for people with disabilities after discovering Runway of Dreams. They were reaching out to Mindy Scheier and her team at Runway of Dreams, which is a non-profit foundation. A for-profit company was created, GAMUT Management, providing consulting and talent management. Now the third arm of GAMUT, accreditation, is being finalized. This crucial piece is the GAMUT Seal of Approval.™ For consumers who are in the marketplace for adaptive products, either for themselves or those they care for: this Seal means the product has been vetted by people with disabilities, caregivers, experts, and professionals in the community. GAMUT’s diverse and very talented team is making sure that proper criteria are developed for this seal. The team consists of core members: Mindy Scheier, CEO, Molly Kettle, COO, Jonathan Kaufman, Chief Strategy Officer who also happens to have a disability, and Kerri McBee-Black, Chief Research Officer. They also have an independent group of evaluators that will be fluid. Integrity is very important to GAMUT and the seal, thus the need for the evaluators to be independent of GAMUT. This group includes people with disabilities, occupational therapists, physical therapists, researchers, designers, product experts, and others. The goal is to have the actual seal officially launched and featured by companies by the end of 2022. GAMUT cannot reveal most of the companies currently trying to get the seal for confidentiality purposes. However, they are proud to announce that adidas Accessories (hats, bags, socks, men’s underwear) is on board to earn the seal. GAMUT’s list of corporate clients to date includes companies like Victoria’s Secret, Target, LVMH, Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive, and Kohl’s among others. Part of Gamut’s mission states: “GAMUT is rebranding the way people with disabilities are viewed, marketed to, and represented in pop culture.” While all of this is true, I want to add a crucial point. Every time GAMUT interacts with a brand, designer, or corporation they are opening the company’s eyes as employers. Gently, with genuine interactions and relationships, companies start to see themselves as employers who can employ more people with disabilities. They look at themselves and start to take a corporate inventory of how they can become more inclusive and accommodating to all disabilities. This is not something GAMUT is formally tasked to do, it is something that is part of their core beliefs and culture, that spreads to those they work with. Organically. Sustainably. Look at that list of corporate partners above again, and then picture the truly large impact this is having knowing there are other companies not listed, and so many more to come. On March 24, 2022, 17-year-old Oliver Scheier said these profound words in his interview with “The View.” “It boggles my mind every day that such an insignificant ask (the jeans he wanted to wear when he was 8) can turn into something so world-changing. It’s unprecedented.” He then praised his mother who he loves very much. That ask and world-changing movement for adaptive clothing now will include a mark of quality to reassure everyday people like you and me that a stringent set of requirements for creating adaptive products has been met. Kudos to GAMUT Management! Look for the logo in this article in stores near you soon, and support those truly inclusive companies!

How Older Mentors Can Help Families of Children With Disabilities

Today my family’s friend Bill turns 92 years old. Bill and I have known each other for almost 20 years, but became closer friends starting in 2007. Bill had recently lost his wife of many years, and was a devoted father to his son with an intellectual disability. His son is in his 60s. My daughter Yassy, who has Down syndrome and autism, is 22. Here are just some of the things he and his family have taught me when it comes to the world of disabilities, advocacy, and parenting. Keep in mind these points apply to Hampton, Virginia. 1) Bill’s generation is the one who started to firmly stand up and say no to doctors who suggested placing infants and children with disabilities in institutions. While Bill and those who did so were still in the minority, there were enough to do things like start The Arc in each state, and band together for progress. 2) In the 1960s, parents were begging just to get their children with disabilities into any public school. Success, or failure, depended on each locality and each group of parents. Self-contained special education classes were the only choice. Reading and writing were not always expectations. 3) Success getting his son into school required the parents to work together to volunteer to drive the school buses. This was the only way one school district would say yes. 4) Back in the early 60s, physicians often gave a medical diagnosis of “idiot.” Bill’s son did not receive his diagnosis of autism and intellectual disability until he was in his 40s. 5) Sheltered workshops were considered progress in the early 1960s. They are becoming outlawed, rightly so, in 2022. Many people who worked in sheltered workshops were very capable of working in the community, even if they could not read or write. 6) Bill’s other son, who does not have any disabilities, is vitally important to their family’s success. An avid runner and biker, he has taught his younger brother to run and ride a bike over the past decades. They often run together in races. Attending sporting events and other passions keep the brothers close. As Bill ages, this bond has gotten stronger. Bill’s older son is so proud of his younger brother, and says that clearly to his friends often. His pride, deep love, and devotion for his brother warm my heart beyond measure. 7) As Bill has aged, his son with disabilities has become his primary daytime caregiver. He has retired from working and enjoys helping his father with day-to-day living. 8) Bill’s generation of parents who kept their children at home commonly placed their children in group homes as adults. Bill did not do this. He and his family did not want to. He has been a clear example of aging in place, in the community, and not always following the crowd. In 2022, group homes are no longer the automatic default for all. 9) Our transportation system needs an overhaul. Watching Bill and his older son drive his younger son to and from work until Bill was 90 was tough. It was a clear example of how poor public transportation impacts self-advocates and their families, and how little has changed in decades. 10) Parents of children with significant disabilities need to get to know families of children with disabilities in the generations ahead of them. Really get to know them. There is much wisdom and gratitude to learn. And during those times when we feel progress is too slow, the real history of the journey before us is just what we need to keep moving forward.

Hallmark Movie Stars Actors With Down Syndrome

How many teens or 20-somethings get to do something so consequential that it raises hopes, dreams, and possibilities for millions of people, while changing society as a whole? Two young, seasoned actors who happen to have Down syndrome are doing just that with their new Hallmark movie, “Color My World With Love.” This is the first Hallmark movie to feature actors with Down syndrome in lead roles. Lily Moore, age 19, has been acting since 2014 amassing over 23 acting credits. She is best known for the Netflix series “Never Have I Ever” where she plays Rebecca. Lily started acting classes at age 6 because several medical conditions left her unable to participate in physical activities many children take for granted. To date, she has had 11 major surgeries. Lily took to acting right away, and it wasn’t long before it was obvious to her family and others that she was a very good actress. Lily is also an experienced model. She learned early to make the most of her talents and always has a positive and strong attitude. Lily’s mantra is “Everybody has an inner star. No matter what it is, find it and let it shine.” She is a senior in high school and lives in the Atlanta, Georgia area. David DeSanctis, age 29, is best known for playing the role of Produce in “Where Hope Grows” in 2014. He was the first actor with Down syndrome to star in a nationally distributed film. David’s outgoing and witty personality was well known in his hometown of Louisville, KY. The producers of the film were searching for someone exactly like David, and were steered his way by David’s community. The rest is history. David is a national public speaker who has presented to audiences all over the country displaying his love of fun, dance, and witty sarcasm. He also uses his presentation skills to advocate for people with disabilities on a national level. David still lives in Louisville, KY. David and Lily’s parents are extremely proud of their children and this movie. Their children have worked hard to get to where they are. They are so excited to see the barriers that will come down when those with disabilities see this movie — and what can be. Lily Moore burst out in tears when she got this role as her dream of a leading role was coming true. In a statement after filming, she said, “Everyone has a dream to fall in love and get married one day, even people with disabilities. I hope viewers take away that ‘Color My World With Love’ is about painting your own story through your emotions and that we all have endless possibilities.” David DeSanctis was grinning and jumping with joy when he got this part. After filming the movie he said, “I just had an awesome time making this movie. I became friends with a lot of very special people. I hope everyone who sees the movie will realize, with the backing of good, caring family figures, they can accomplish amazing things in life.” “Endless possibilities” and “accomplish amazing things in life” are goals millions of people with disabilities can now see just a little bit clearer. They are also facts that our broader society will see on their TV screens, which in turn will organically break down centuries of stereotypes. Representation matters! “Color My World With Love” premieres June 12, 2022 on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries Channel.

The Infinite Benefits of Including Students With Disabilities

I was in my daughter’s middle school for a meeting with some of her teachers. As I was walking down a hallway with a few of them they stated, “Look, there is Yassy! She is cycling away. We hear she loves to go in that room and ride the bike for the whole gym class. She is in great shape.”  I looked in the room and there weren’t many other kids in there. It was new, with a glass wall, so I saw her and took this photo. It is blurry because I was trying to be quick, so as not to distract her. As we walked away I remarked that there weren’t many other kids riding bikes, why was that? They then told me her gym class was rather large and was having a chaotic year. They were existing with substitute teachers as their main gym teacher had taken a job elsewhere. Because of all the subs, many students were taking advantage of that fact and misbehaving. Yassy knew that, and preferred to stay away from trouble. She did this by peacefully riding a bike. I was proud of her. Many students get involved in trouble simply by association. Others cower and fret, understandably. Yassy chose neither option, she simply found something better to do. I must state here that she has Down syndrome and autism, but was always 100% included in her schools. When I happened across this photo recently many other memories ran through my mind. I remembered her teachers in middle and high school telling me that she would stand up in class and tell disruptive students to be quiet because she was “there to learn.” I heard this numerous times, but it always surprised me because Yassy is normally very shy. However, when something important, like learning, was at stake, she chose to speak up. Then there were the times that IEP teams highly recommended she leave classes five minutes early to avoid the crowded halls in high school because she was so tiny and used a rolling backpack. I agreed at first. But it didn’t take long to realize she didn’t need to do that. I realized she was close to being an adult, and entering the real world full time, where one needs to get used to crowds. Plus, she was missing classes leaving early. So Yassy stayed in her classes, like everyone else. The statistics for students with ID, autism, or both to be fully included in all general education classes in their home school are dismal. This is a tragic fact costing countless students, and their peers, well-rounded educations and the intangible benefits of true inclusion. Like seeing Yassy quietly choose to go ride a bike to avoid trouble, and perhaps doing the same thing. Like quietly being grateful someone else stood up to the kids making class chaotic, and finally being able to learn. Or if you are the teacher, being able to teach. Like learning to be more aware and considerate of others around you in crowded situations like hallways, even if you are almost 7 feet tall with 4’9” kids with wheels whizzing around. A friend recently posted a  25-year-old newspaper article from Fairfax County, Va. on social media. It read in part: “I am so happy that XXXXXX is so excited because her child gets to go to kindergarten class near his home, even though he has special needs. She’s pleased and I suppose we should all be pleased. However, I am not pleased, because what this means is that my child, who attends classes there also, will probably not get as much attention, because the teacher will probably have to spend so much time with the special child. Isn’t it nice we help one child and disadvantage some 20 others.” There it is, this parent’s ignorance, and discrimination out in the open for all to see. Still relevant in 2022. I write this piece to address the ignorance, which needs to be chipped at daily in this world. I write this piece also in gratitude. Because when I proudly say my daughter received a solid, well-rounded fully inclusive education, I mean academics and all the intangible benefits that come with that. She was prepared for the real world where she is mindfully building a well-rounded inclusive life as a young adult. Please look around and do what you can to chip away at the sometimes overwhelming ignorance surrounding people with disabilities and inclusion. I bet the infinite benefits will surprise you, and those around you. In the very best ways.

13 Successful and Famous People With Down Syndrome

Do you know anyone who has: interviewed over 600 people for a Happiness Film Project that has over 3 million views had an official superhero drawn and named after them spoken to the UN or to Congress spoken to Parliament in London acted on an Emmy winning TV show won a broadcasting Emmy earned The Diana Award (named after Princess Diana — the highest accolade a young adult can earn for their humanitarian work) become an international and print model in NYC/ Paris/ Dubai and more made an award-winning short film acted in a George Takei play (Sulu from Star Trek) had their poetry praised by Pete Townshend of The Who been in People Magazine three times entered a Miss USA pageant written a children’s book officially counted over 75,000 hugs started a successful business and/or non-profit and/or become a globally known self-advocate — all while in their 20s or 30s? What would you say if I told you all of these amazing young adults have Down syndrome? As the mom of a young adult who has Down syndrome and autism, I say, “Yes! It’s about time!” People with disabilities, their families, educational professionals, employers, and society as a whole need this fresh breath of air that truly represents massive change. That is the only way we, as a cohesive unit of humanity, can move forward into this century and beyond. Every March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. Because my Born Fabulous Podcast celebrates accomplished young adults with intellectual disabilities, I started sharing special features of successful young adults I know with Down syndrome on social media. What started out as a simple thing to do quickly became more involved. As I reached out to self-advocates and their support teams for more information and photos for my write-ups, I received extensive resumes and CVs. Each person had done so much already in their young lives that it was hard to highlight all their achievements. I received so many photos that it was hard to choose what to use, so I started making collages. And then I noticed these themes emerging. It became clear that massive positive change is taking place in the beauty industry, media including film/TV/social media, business, non-profits, advocacy/politics, sports, and more. Seven sought-after public/keynote speakers, four professional models, three filmmakers, four actors, two corporate CEOs, three non-profit CEOs, three artists, one professional lobbyist, and so many more amazing people emerged. A Happiness Expert (1) and a Hugging Expert (9) are in this exciting and eclectic group. Every single young adult is a strong self-advocate making a tremendous difference, felt not in ripples, but in waves. And these waves are no longer just local, they are global. 1. Fionn Angus, 26, Galway, Ireland. Non-profit CEO, musician (fiddle), visual artist, filmmaker, international public speaker, stand-up comedian, global self-advocate. Fionn has spoken to over 35 colleges and universities in England, Holland, Denmark, Australia, the USA, and Canada. He has helped educate over 10,000 students in Ireland about wildlife. 2. Nino Genua, 23, Bristol, England. Professional model, athlete, rugby coach, soccer coach, global self-advocate. Nino works 5 jobs, networks with other globally known self-advocates championing legal change to help people with disabilities, and is a strong believer in physical fitness after serious illnesses and injuries when he was younger. 3. Olivia DePiore, 25, Cleveland, Ohio. International runway/print model who has been in Fashion Weeks from NYC to Paris and Dubai, actress, advocate, superhero character Prima Diva by FutureGen Comics created in her likeness, childhood cancer survivor who has raised over $100,000 for the American Cancer Society. 4. Heidi Crowter, 26, England. Married, global self-advocate who has started and spearheaded changing laws to help people with disabilities in England and beyond. When Heidi hears no from legislators, she appeals! 5. Rachel Handlin, 26, USA. Photographer, award-winning filmmaker, visual artist, strong inclusion self-advocate, first person with Down syndrome to earn a bachelor’s degree at California Institute for the Arts and now earning an MFA at Pratt Institute. 6. Connor Long, 27, Louisville, Colorado. Film and stage actor, international public speaker, athlete, Broadcast Emmy Award-winning former reporter, filmmaker, self-advocate. 7. Mikayla Holmgren, 27, Minnesota. Professional model, dancer, first woman with Down syndrome to compete in a Miss USA pageant in Minnesota, public speaker (has spoken before the United Nations and the U.S. Congress). 8. Sean McElwee, 28, Mission Viejo, CA. Emmy Award-winning “Born This Way” cast member, CEO of Seanese t-shirts, creator/host/star of The Sean Show on YouTube, public speaker, strong self-advocate. 9. Tim Harris, 36, Albuquerque, NM. First person with Down syndrome to own a restaurant, CEO of Tim’s Big Heart Enterprises, very popular public speaker, author of “The Book of Hugs,” has officially counted 75,000 hugs. 10. Kayla McKeon, 34, Syracuse, NY. First professional lobbyist in DC with Down syndrome, podcast host of “Kayla’s Korner,” sought-after keynote speaker, community college student. 11. Stephen Todd, 31, Virginia Beach, VA. CEO of non-profit Bluebird Beach Bungalows. Stephen has raised over $80,000 for over 60 charities building $15 birdhouses out of reclaimed wood and sea treasure decorations. Stephen’s motto is “Do good things!” 12. Brandon Gruber, 26, California. Non-profit CEO, artist, used his art to sell cards to help people in disadvantaged groups – earned The Diana Award, model, fashion designer, actor who is currently in the George Takei play “Allegiance,” very strong self-advocate and leader, has been in “People Magazine” 3 times. 13. Melissa Riggio, New Jersey. Writer famous for “Know Me Before You Judge Me” in National Geographic Kids, poet whose poems were turned into songs by Pete Townshend’s wife Rachel Fuller, swimmer, strong self-advocate. Melissa’s father was former Barnes & Noble CEO Steve Riggio, and her birth made thousands of titles about disabilities available to the public in a time before Amazon. Melissa encouraged awareness events at Barnes & Noble stores all over the country, progress in continuing education after high school, and more progressive living choices in adulthood. Melissa passed away in 2008 at age 20, but will forever be part of disability history. She is currently listed in South Korean textbooks. This is just the tip of a massive sea of progress, not just for people with Down syndrome, but for all people with disabilities. I follow many strong, successful, and exciting self-advocates who are autistic, blind, have hearing loss, cerebral palsy, and many more disabilities. Progress for one is progress for all.

50 Years After Willowbrook: Why We Must Remember Disability History

“We just found out our baby, a girl, has Down syndrome via our amniocentesis appointment. We know you have a sister with Down syndrome. We’re calling you because you are the closest friend we have who truly knows someone with Down syndrome. What do we need to know?” This was a call my husband and I made to a family friend in December of 1999. Our friend’s sister, Amy, was younger than he was. And she had spent her younger years at Willowbrook, a horrible institution for people with disabilities in New York that was exposed to the world by a young reporter named Geraldo Rivera in 1972. She was later placed in group homes, spending more time with her family than she had when she was younger. My friend’s response was simple. He paused a minute and then said, “She will be the ultimate joy of your life. I know that. My family knows that. And she will have a much easier and better life than my sister does.” As our daughter Yassy grew from a baby to a toddler, walking with her pigtails, babbling, smiling, and playing, our friend’s parents would see her when they came to town. They were always wonderful with her — so engaged. But near the end of each visit, there was always a brief mask of melancholy. We never asked why, we just knew. We could tell they wished their own daughter, who was now becoming an older adult in a group home, had had a much easier time when she was born. By all accounts, she too was adorable when she was little. They saw their daughter Amy in our Yassy’s eyes. And as our daughter has grown, she is now almost 22, I have had several childhood friends mention they had siblings with Down syndrome who were either sent to institutions, or kept away from the public at home. When we were younger, these siblings were never mentioned. It has been 50 years since Willowbrook’s evils were shown to the world in graphic film footage taken by Geraldo Rivera’s film crew. Human beings with disabilities of all ages were treated in abominable and torturous ways, due to ignorance, arrogance, and an extreme void of basic moral compassion. It took far too long after the investigation for the institution to close, 15 long years, until 1987. But the deep tradition of placing individuals with any disability in institutions nationally started to change. Laws changed. More babies with disabilities were kept home with their families and started receiving educations. This is the story that Geraldo Rivera is most proud of, as he continues to champion causes for people with disabilities to this day in his private life. People with disabilities, their families, and society as a whole owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Rivera for revealing the horrid truth that was the daily reality for so many at this former “training center.” Disability history is important, and it is something everyone should truly know. Unfortunately, many of the survivors of Willowbrook were sent to group homes that became mini Willowbrooks. Vigilance and advocacy are always going to be important, especially for society’s most vulnerable. This only comes with awareness and then action, something Geraldo provided in spades. For all the good Mr. Rivera did, and continues to do, I feel the need to point out that in 2022 the standard is much higher than group homes which he continues to promote. The standard for children is to stay home, with as much support as is needed. The standard is to be educated, with real meaningful inclusive educations in a child’s neighborhood school. The standard is to graduate and then either attend more continuing education, or work in the community. Not in sheltered workshops. In jobs that cross the spectrum of work everyone has, not just stereotypical jobs. Jobs that pay minimum wage or above, and that can hopefully include or lead to benefits. The standard is independent and interdependent lives in the community living by themselves or with roommates, spouses, or whoever they choose with whatever support they need. Not congregate settings. The standard is a well-rounded inclusive life that has the core foundations of friendship, love, work, and faith if desired. In 1972 people with disabilities ranging from Down syndrome and autism, to cerebral palsy and more were too often hidden from the world. Today, people with disabilities can do anything from being respected professionals and leaders to winning Emmys, lobbying politicians, writing books, owning businesses, playing sports on school and college teams, and succeeding in TV and movies. There is a wonderful light at the end of my story about Amy. My friend’s niece is a successful playwright named Lindsey Ferrentino, who grew up knowing her Aunt Amy and hearing stories about her. Lindsey wrote an Off-Broadway play, “Amy and the Orphans,” inspired by her Aunt Amy and family, and it is now being made into a feature film at Netflix which Lindsey is writing and producing. This is the shining hope for our future, younger generations that are growing up with people who have people with various disabilities in their households, schools, places of work, worship, and all around them in life. The organic fruit that the world is now starting to see smells very sweet and is beyond beautiful to see. We will now have more intelligent, empathetic, and well-rounded professionals, politicians, leaders, writers, parents, teachers, and neighbors. This is a win/win for everyone. I for one cannot wait to see not only Lindsey’s movie, but the other content this young 30-something has ahead of her. I cannot wait to see the friends my 21-year-old grew up with in her fully inclusive education become the world we all crave and need to see. And as I look at the future with hope, there is also gratitude for the lives my daughter and so many now have. Please take a few minutes to watch this important clip so you too know disability history, and then you can see just how far we have come.

The Infinite Benefits of Including Students With Disabilities

I was in my daughter’s middle school for a meeting with some of her teachers. As I was walking down a hallway with a few of them they stated, “Look, there is Yassy! She is cycling away. We hear she loves to go in that room and ride the bike for the whole gym class. She is in great shape.”  I looked in the room and there weren’t many other kids in there. It was new, with a glass wall, so I saw her and took this photo. It is blurry because I was trying to be quick, so as not to distract her. As we walked away I remarked that there weren’t many other kids riding bikes, why was that? They then told me her gym class was rather large and was having a chaotic year. They were existing with substitute teachers as their main gym teacher had taken a job elsewhere. Because of all the subs, many students were taking advantage of that fact and misbehaving. Yassy knew that, and preferred to stay away from trouble. She did this by peacefully riding a bike. I was proud of her. Many students get involved in trouble simply by association. Others cower and fret, understandably. Yassy chose neither option, she simply found something better to do. I must state here that she has Down syndrome and autism, but was always 100% included in her schools. When I happened across this photo recently many other memories ran through my mind. I remembered her teachers in middle and high school telling me that she would stand up in class and tell disruptive students to be quiet because she was “there to learn.” I heard this numerous times, but it always surprised me because Yassy is normally very shy. However, when something important, like learning, was at stake, she chose to speak up. Then there were the times that IEP teams highly recommended she leave classes five minutes early to avoid the crowded halls in high school because she was so tiny and used a rolling backpack. I agreed at first. But it didn’t take long to realize she didn’t need to do that. I realized she was close to being an adult, and entering the real world full time, where one needs to get used to crowds. Plus, she was missing classes leaving early. So Yassy stayed in her classes, like everyone else. The statistics for students with ID, autism, or both to be fully included in all general education classes in their home school are dismal. This is a tragic fact costing countless students, and their peers, well-rounded educations and the intangible benefits of true inclusion. Like seeing Yassy quietly choose to go ride a bike to avoid trouble, and perhaps doing the same thing. Like quietly being grateful someone else stood up to the kids making class chaotic, and finally being able to learn. Or if you are the teacher, being able to teach. Like learning to be more aware and considerate of others around you in crowded situations like hallways, even if you are almost 7 feet tall with 4’9” kids with wheels whizzing around. A friend recently posted a  25-year-old newspaper article from Fairfax County, Va. on social media. It read in part: “I am so happy that XXXXXX is so excited because her child gets to go to kindergarten class near his home, even though he has special needs. She’s pleased and I suppose we should all be pleased. However, I am not pleased, because what this means is that my child, who attends classes there also, will probably not get as much attention, because the teacher will probably have to spend so much time with the special child. Isn’t it nice we help one child and disadvantage some 20 others.” There it is, this parent’s ignorance, and discrimination out in the open for all to see. Still relevant in 2022. I write this piece to address the ignorance, which needs to be chipped at daily in this world. I write this piece also in gratitude. Because when I proudly say my daughter received a solid, well-rounded fully inclusive education, I mean academics and all the intangible benefits that come with that. She was prepared for the real world where she is mindfully building a well-rounded inclusive life as a young adult. Please look around and do what you can to chip away at the sometimes overwhelming ignorance surrounding people with disabilities and inclusion. I bet the infinite benefits will surprise you, and those around you. In the very best ways.

Before 'Free Britney' Jenny Hatch Was Fighting for Guardianship Reform

Before Britney Spears’ famous case for freedom, there was a 29-year-old woman named Jenny Hatch in Virginia. “I just need a little help.” That’s what Jenny Hatch told her lawyer Jonathan Martinis when she was fighting for her right to be free of guardianship. Jenny was in a dire situation forced to live in a group home in another city after she had a bicycle accident. Her phone, computer, right to go to her church, ability to go to her job, and ability to make her own choices in life were taken away. Her life as she knew it was taken away. Why? Because her parents had guardianship. Why? Because Jenny Hatch has Down syndrome. Jenny is a smart, resourceful young woman. She had a job at a local thrift store and had become close with the owners of that store. She was riding her bike to work when the accident happened. When the life that she knew and loved was taken away instantly, and she had to move to another city, Norfolk, she started running away. And she reached out desperately for help. Fortunately, her boss and lawyer Jonathan Martinis stepped in to help. Jenny’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2013. Jenny’s simple statement saying she just needed a little help is one each one of us lives by. We need help with our taxes, plumbing, certain work around the house, legal situations, etc. Who doesn’t need help at one time or another? Jenny’s determination and drive, her brilliant lawyer, and the love of her close friends combined with true justice for a critical win that has and will help countless others behind her. Jenny Hatch was allowed to be her own guardian, or whatever arrangement she chose, after a one-year period. Along with her newfound freedom, Jenny chose her new family: Kelly Morris, Jim Talbert, and their family. Kelly is Jenny’s boss at the thrift store. There is far more to this happy ending. Here are just some of the ways that Jenny Hatch’s case has reverberated, for the good. 1) The Jenny Hatch Justice Project was formed and is now helping others. It is “dedicated to advancing people with disabilities’ right to make their own choices and determine their own path and direction in life.” 2) Supported decision-making is now being discussed with parents more and more across the country, as their loved ones turn 18. Supported decision-making is now a popular alternative to guardianship and conservatorship in the U.S. This is the process Jenny and her lawyer advocated for in her case, the way she would get the help she needed. With supported decision-making, people with disabilities choose who they want to help them in their Circle of Support. This circle can be fluid, and is headed by the person with a disability. 3) According to the Washington Post, “Twelve states and D.C. have put in place laws recognizing supported decision-making as a preferred alternative to guardianship.” 4) People and courts are realizing that this concept of freedom and supported decision-making applies to more than people with intellectual disabilities. It can help senior citizens, people with mental illness, people with physical illnesses, and more. 5) We now have some data to show the impacts of supported decision-making. The Arc of Northern Virginia did a pilot project studying 10 people with intellectual or developmental disabilities and their families/caregivers. They were very positive when asked about making their own decisions and working with the project. This is just the beginning of what many hope to see, more data from increased use of supported decision making, and less use of guardianship. I saw this data presented at an Arc meeting, and as a parent of a child with Down syndrome/autism, I found it very refreshing and encouraging. 6) Jenny’s lawyer, Jonathan Martinis wrote a book with Peter Blanck called, “Supported Decision-Making: From Justice for Jenny to Justice for All.” This book is readily available and is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to know more. The legal world knows about Jenny Hatch’s case. That is a fact. That simple fact is spreading awareness behind the scenes. Behind the “news.” Behind the social media platforms/audiences of a superstar like Britney Spears. A solid, well-respected Supreme Court victory, a slow but steady rippling effect of supported decision making over guardianship, combined with an impactful Netflix documentary and Britney Spears’ personal win of freedom are huge advancements for countless others in the future. Not one, not two, but now multiple precedents have been set. This is now a huge part of disability history. A huge step forward. Everyone knows about the Britney Spears case. Now tell them about Jenny Hatch.

Football Player Caden Cox Paves the Way for People With Down Syndrome

A few weeks ago a friend reached out asking if I still had the video from two years ago I took of her son playing high school football, and making a tackle as a senior kicker. Not only did I still have the video, it was a moment cemented in my mind. Because that was the day my family went to see Caden Cox play football at a local high school. Seeing him impacted us so much, I wrote about it. Caden’s mom wanted this video to send to another mom. She was trying to help encourage parents of a younger child who also wanted to play football. I am so glad I still had it, and so glad Caden’s mom is still helping families behind her. Why? Because Caden has Down syndrome, and he is doing things that are definitely paving the way for generations behind him. Caden is now going to Hocking College, a community college in Nelsonville, Ohio. He is excelling in the classroom, and continuing his love of football as a kicker on the team where he wears the number 21 to represent Down syndrome’s extra chromosome. He had 100% accuracy in extra point attempts this year. Elected Homecoming King twice, first in high school and then in college, Caden is obviously a well-rounded young man. His dance skills, infectious personality, and perseverance have turned into over 305,000 Tik Tok followers. @kickinitwithcaden##Wherescadencox ##moose ##fypシ゚viral ##dontmind♬ I Don’t Mind – Fammouzz.Khariiiii These followers, combined with Caden’s football accomplishments, earned him a NIL contract as an ambassador for Rocky Brands. This is the first year that college athletes are allowed to earn money endorsing brands. It is a momentous step for true inclusion that a college athlete with Down syndrome is part of this advancement. And that’s not all. On November 20, 2021, Caden was featured in a piece on ESPN. ESPN came to Hocking College to shoot this interview with him. So now, finally, millions of people will be able to see the Caden Cox we have known for two years now. (Full disclosure: He was my daughter Yassy’s boyfriend, until he moved away a year ago.) Caden and his family have worked hard to get to this point. Caden has been an athlete his whole life. He has a Second Degree Black Belt in Taekwondo. He was a gold medal swimmer with Special Olympics. He was a track athlete in high school. His family is full of college football players, including his father, brother, uncles, and cousin. Football is in his blood. That football drive, combined with a life dedicated to practice, teamwork, and excellence needs to be acknowledged. His family’s determination to make sure Caden always had the chance to do what he has done is also a factor. Inclusion for people with significant disabilities doesn’t magically happen. It is a combination of research, determination, perseverance, proper support, and excellent educators/community leaders, all under the guidance of God’s hand which opens the windows of opportunity. The impact that Caden’s story will have on athletes beside and behind him, with and without disabilities, is immeasurable. It extends to their families, schools, and wider communities. It also reaches corporations and employers who are seeing more and more every day of this massive, often-overlooked population: people with disabilities. It is crystal clear that every exceptional accomplishment by a person with a disability improves the world for everyone. Thank you to Hocking College for truly including Caden in every way. Congratulations to Hocking College for his positive impact on your campus. Too many people with significant disabilities are still locked out of continuing education because of hurdles and blocks in the road. Thank you and congratulations to Rocky Brands for taking the right step signing Caden, and for the rewards you will now reap. I hope that many more companies will follow your lead featuring people with significant disabilities as ambassadors, models, and more. I pray that even more companies will see the benefits of hiring people with significant disabilities for all jobs, including ones never imagined before. And thank you ESPN, for helping raise inclusion, acceptance, and awareness for people with disabilities – and their communities. I hope you watch too. History is being made. The good kind.