My daughter Jillian is 19. She is a senior in high school, who will attend Northern Kentucky University in the fall. She has performed in the school play, she has managed the school volleyball team, she was on the junior varsity dance team that entertains at halftimes of basketball games. Believe it or not, she holds the school record in her weight class for the bench press, the dead lift and the squat. (Dad already had one son. Maybe he wanted another.) Last summer, she worked 12 hours a week in a daycare center, making almost $8 an hour. The kids loved her, and cried when she left to go back to high school.
And she has Down Syndrome. In some respects, that matters a great deal. In others, it matters not at all. It's about perception, mostly. It's about insisting on getting what you pay for, and not leaving the ticket counter or the insurance office -- or the high school conference room -- until you get it.
People look, but they don't see. People, and I'm talking qualified professionals, people trained in special education, too often don't look at Jillian and see possibility. They look at a child with Down Syndrome. They don't see who she can be. They conjure a stereotype. It's easier that way.
Jillian once had a special ed teacher who sat in an IEP meeting with us and said, quote, she can't learn. Jillian has had teachers, too many teachers, who could not be bothered to explore her possibility. It has been amazing, watching these teachers, who at some young age must have though teaching was an opportunity to change a kid's life. Presented with Exhibit A in my daughter, most of them have attempted the bare minimum. They have missed their calling. They're enriched only by a paycheck. My wife Kerry and I have spent 19 years trying to change their perceptions. We will never stop. We have been guided by one thought:
Expect. Don't accept.
We have not allowed our daughter's aspirations to be tethered to the the way people look at her, without seeing her. We let Jillian set her own bar. Wanna dance on a team? If you're good enough. Wanna get a summer job working with kids? If they'll hire you. Wanna set the school weightlifting record. Sure, great, absolutely. No steroids.
We never say never. Never is not a word. It's a self-defeating state of mind.
We have to change the way people think before we can change the way they act. Altering perceptions is like breaking a stone with drops of water. It can be done, if you're willing to take the time.
We have spent an equal amount of time educating the educators. Don't just look at our daughter. See her.
All any of it required, at base, was a disbelief in limitations. She can't learn? No, you're not willing to let her try. As parents, we cannot let that go unchallenged, not ever. We owe our kids that much. Expect, don't accept.
Do not give in to those who would ignore their better natures, because it's easier to retain a stereotype than change it. Change requires work, but it's the only way we improve as human beings. When people resist change, protest. Scream real loud. Give 'em hell. Don't let them tell you what your kid can do. Expect, don't accept.
Something that we as parents have learned is, every small achievement is worth celebrating: Tying shoes, answering the phone, writing thank-you notes, making the bed, fixing breakfast. After each of these little triumphs, I always ask myself: Who got the better part of this deal? Jillian? Or me?
As parents, we've spent lots of time hearing what our kids can't do, will never do. We heard it from the first day. She'll never be able to... complete the sentence. We never bought into that. You get what you expect. Not what you accept. It is the difference between settling and battling. The difference between daydreams and real ones. You get what you expect. Not what you accept.
Don't accept. Expect.
What else did we hear? These kids won't read. Jillian reads at about a 6th-grade level. She's in a book club. These kids aren't good socially. There are times I wish that were the case. In her elementary school, Jillian was known as The Mayor. In intermediate school, she was appointed an ambassador, a 6th-grader charged with showing the rookie 5th-graders around the building.
Education should be the business of instilling hope. Too often, it isn't. I don't like being a pioneer. I'm not curing polio. I'm just expecting teachers to do their jobs. I'm not accepting any less. There are teachers at Jillian's school now who frown at the mention of my name. And my wife's. We're a pain in the ass. Other parents have to change diapers. We have to change minds.
But what a payoff.
Here is what Jillian does. Here is the service she performs, by being her: She opens my eyes to the wonder of the ordinary. I've enjoyed the little wins with Jillian I took for granted with her brother: Using a fork, spelling, times tables, discerning the incredibly vital difference between homogeneous and heterogeneous mixtures. Actually, for several years, Jillian has had homework I can't do, making me wonder who's got the syndrome thing here.
I would never have seen any of this without Jillian's vision. I look forward to the next generation of milestones: Jillian home alone overnight, Jillian in her own apartment. Jillian, God help us, learning to drive.
As these kids grow, so do we. We spend less time asking why and more asking why not. Their limitations are obvious. What's less apparent is how many of those limitations disappear when we expect better and more, from them and ourselves. And when we accept nothing less. Their potential is limited only by our preconceptions.
It's called Down Syndrome because a guy named Down identified it. It's not down at all, not for the kids and the teachers and classmates who choose to embrace them. Certainly not for those of us who are privileged to know them and love them.
As parents of children with disabilities, we face unusual challenges. But also, unique opportunity. As we blaze the trails, bend the minds and tweak the perceptions, we reap the rewards of knowing we've made the world a better place. We're only as good as the way we treat each other.
Expect, don't accept.