My daughter Grace has Down syndrome and her journey has been the journey of every child, filled with possibilities and challenges….waiting for her to unfold as a person and discover herself. Our son Brandon, who was 10 years old when Grace was born said it best…..”So what if she has Down syndrome, what’s the big deal, we are all different.” So started the journey of Grace.
From the time she was little we have included Grace in our community. She was part of toddler play groups, played soccer in a peewee league, and was active in our church. When it came time for nursery school we searched until we found a director who would be open to taking Grace. We learned early on that there would be people who would welcome Grace and others who needed to be educated as to all the possibilities. We were inspired by the stories of other people who had disabilities and who were embraced for who they were. They became our models. When it came time for her to go to elementary school we advocated for Grace to be part of an inclusion preschool. One did not exist at the time, but with some persuasion, and an open minded preschool teacher, one was created. We have always set the bar high for Grace and she has always risen to it. Her teachers expected her to do her best and Grace rose to their expectations. Grace was educated with her typical peers and each year after that she was part of a full inclusion model.
I would like to tell you this was always an easy road. It wasn’t. After each grade we were always told that the next year would be harder and Grace might not be able to succeed or become too frustrated. We learned to overcome teacher fears with education while giving them the resources and support they needed to work successfully with Grace. It was always a team effort, respecting the professional while understanding the need to advocate for Grace. We pushed ahead, did our research with leaders in education and inclusion. Grace’s previous teacher became our biggest advocate as they watched Grace succeed and she broke through barriers of what was expected of a child with Down syndrome. At the beginning of the new school year, we trained Grace’s teachers as to successful ways to work with Grace, and educated them about Down syndrome. Breaking down myths became very important. We even arranged, with the support of the principal, to go into the classroom and explain to Grace’s classmates what Down syndrome was and answer any questions they may have. We stressed that Grace was more alike than different and she wants what every child wants, to have friends and to be included. The more we educated those around Grace the more accepted she was. Grace’s classmates became some of her biggest advocates. They even learned how to successfully include her and to help her learn, aiding her teachers.
Grace graduated from our school district this year….she is moving on to our regional middle school. We will again have to forge a new road for Grace. In her last year we were given memories to help with the road ahead, and help fuel our fight for acceptance and inclusion for our daughter. Grace’s close friend did a fundraiser and put on a walk for Down syndrome. All the students in the school raised money and participated in a day of activities that made them aware of some of the challenges a child with Down syndrome may face. Our town ice cream store donated ice cream to the event, the principal hired a DJ, the mayor came, and Grace and her friend gave speeches. On that day a check was presented for $5400 to the president of New Jersey Special Olympics, which has a unified sports program to support inclusive athletic activities in public schools. As her mom, it was like watching a feel good movie where the underdog finally triumphs. Grace’s speech said it the best…..”Hi I am Grace and I have Down syndrome, but it is not who I am. I am Grace McDonald a sixth grade student at Gould School.”