By Melissa Ford
We all have differences, each and everyone of us. Yet we share one thing in common, our human experience. When we focus on our differences, judging someone based on appearances or mental or physical abilities then we can’t connect; we miss out on meaningful conversations, opportunities to learn about ourselves and others, productive communities, and the ability to truly appreciate what binds us.
By failing to accept one another, we fail to accept ourselves.
To help us “explore, discuss and celebrate the diversity of our shared human experience,” four community agencies (Seguin, Oak Leyden Developmental Services, Aspire and Community Support Services) serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Oak Park, River Forest and the greater Chicagoland area are sponsoring the first annual Reel Abilities Chicago Disabilities Film Festival running April 25th through April 29th at various venues throughout Oak Park.
This multi-faceted arts festival featuring award-winning films followed by panel discussions as well as music, art and dance events is bringing education to our community about developmental disabilities and the need for inclusion in order to reduce the stigma and discrimination people with disabilities deal with on a daily basis.
In anticipation of this upcoming festival, I spent a morning with Georgia Hunter and her parents, Glenn and Karen Hunter, to discuss her life, her accomplishments and her personal challenges. Georgia is a loving, sweet and passionate 23 year-old born with Down syndrome.
Sitting in the Hunters’ living room with Karen, Glenn and Georgia, I asked them what our focus should be. “I really want to focus on our similarities as humans not our differences. I want to look at the positives and not the negatives because as I see it - what is my focus going to be?” Karen earnestly replied. For the past 23 years, Karen and Glenn Hunter have been loving, guiding and advocating on behalf of Georgia from a positive, empowering perspective: Georgia can do what anyone else can do; it just might take her a little longer.
After interviewing Georgia and her parents, I realized her parents are right about Georgia’s abilities, and it doesn’t seem to have taken her much longer considering all she has accomplished in her 23 years.
Melissa: Where do we start?
Glenn: First, I want to acknowledge that even though Georgia has Down syndrome, she is very high functioning. She has social skills and can easily be integrated into the community. It really just gets down to how the individual is accepted. Georgia has had tremendous support as she has moved through pre-school, Whittier, middle school and high school. 98% of her school experience has been a positive. Her experiences including after school programs through Opportunity Knocks, West Suburban Special Recreation Association and Seguin Services have been a fabulous support for her in getting her to this point.
Karen: That’s true. Georgia is a twin and we have another daughter who is only a year and half older. When they were little - three kids in a year and a half - we were just too busy to do different things; they were just lumped together in whatever they did. It was easier to do the same thing with everyone so the expectations were there. For who Georgia is, it was easy to do that. She was just doing what everyone else did even though it might have taken her a little longer.
Melissa: What were some things you and your family did, Georgia?
Georgia. We played sports. My dad did ice hockey and my mom was in swimming and tennis. My twin sister, Cate, did tennis, soccer, volleyball. My oldest sister, Emma, did volleyball and soccer. For me I did bowling, tennis, basketball and softball. When I was little, I played t-ball with my twin sister, and in the final championship game it was my team against my sister’s team. It was a twin sister showdown and Cate struck me out.
Melissa: Wow! You’ve all played a lot of sports. What are you doing now?
Georgia: I got job coaching at Marion Street Cheese Market. Now I work at Trader Joe’s.
Glenn: The State of Illinois mandates that you have services through your 22nd birthday through the public school system and then you’re cut out. Your child no longer receives services through the high school such as speech, OT or other therapies. That’s where Seguin Services comes in offering life skills, job coaching and job supervision for kids with disabilities transitioning from high school into the next phase.
Karen: Yes! Through their Building Bridges to the Future program, Seguin has assigned a job supervisor to Georgia, who checks in with her at Trader Joe’s, keeping in touch with her employers to ensure she is getting the training she may need, dealing with any scheduling issues, providing whatever help Georgia needs to be as independent as she can be. That’s what we all hope for our kids, to be on their own and survive in the world!
Georgia: We have orchids at Trader Joe’s, which is good because my mom is addicted to orchids. I got my mom some flowers for her birthday. They are purple, my mom’s favorite color.
Karen: I do love purple! It’s been incredibly supportive to have Seguin’s involvement picking up where the high school left off regarding job training and support roles. Georgia really likes her Case Manager, Dick Biggins. They get along famously. His family was involved in starting Seguin 50 years ago for his sister, who also happens to have Down syndrome. And the people at Trader Joe’s have provided in-house workers to work along side Georgia and train her. She loves working at Trader Joe’s!
Melissa: Seguin has provided so much support! Georgia, besides your job at Trader Joe’s are you working anywhere else?
Georgia: I have a second job. I work at the Dole library and put movies and books in order. Sometimes I bring home movies for my Dad. My mom gives me books to return that are overdue. I’m reading a book about Anne Frank; she is one of my favorites.
Karen: Georgia also did an interview on Radio Disney for Special Olympic Illinois. She discussed how she felt about the “R-word” (retarded) being said around Georgia and her friends.
Georgia: I was called a retard once when I was little. I told a teacher because I didn’t want to be bullied. I walked away but there was a fight. Since high school - I have never been threatened because I am too cute and too adorable (smiling).
Karen: It was just one kid you were having trouble with. Grammar school and middle school years were difficult. Maybe around Georgia’s sophomore or junior year in high school, she started gaining friends.
Georgia: I did a program called CITE - Community Integrated Transition Education. I did that for three years at the high school; it is held at the River Forest Community Center. When I got out of school, I felt really bad because I didn’t get to see my friends as much.
Melissa: What do you do now so you are able to have more contact with your friends?
Georgia: I’m back playing basketball. I had a mishap along the way; I injured my right knee playing. I had a tough time. What happened was my knee gave out. I heard a huge snap and the next day I had to do surgery. I was so scared and I was really crying. They cleaned up my knee and when I woke up, my mom was there. We went to get some ice cream.
Karen: (laughing) That’s right; we went to get ice cream right away.
Georgia: The worse part was when my friends were staring at me. I don’t like people staring at me because I had crutches. I just graduated out of physical therapy to get my knee better so I can play basketball again.
Karen: Yes, Georgia was anxious and concerned about being stared at in her own friend community. It was hard for her. Opportunity Knocks, another local agency has been a wonderful opportunity for Georgia and other kids, offering services and support that used to be provided by the public school system for adults with developmental disabilities over 22. Georgia has felt really lonely without her friends and OK has helped her reconnect with them.
Georgia: I see pretty much all of my friends at Opportunity Knocks. Also, I’m the official assistant coach of the Huskie Special Olympic basketball team at the high school. I’m even allowed to go to state if the team makes it. There are two teams for basketball - Varsity and JV. Both teams are co-ed. This year the Varsity is all boys, but when I played basketball at the high school, I was the only girl on Varsity. I played point guard. We won our division and we played really, really well.
Melissa: What team do you play with now?
Georgia: The WSSRA Bobcats, but “it’s not about losing or winning; it’s about being teammates.” That’s my favorite quote.
Karen: I like that quote, too.
Melissa: It is inspirational! Speaking of . . . I hear you give speeches?
Georgia: I am a Special Olympic Global Messenger. I give speeches to different groups about Special Olympics and what it means to me. I’ve spoken to the Knights of Columbus, the National Board of Special Olympics where there were 500 people. I’ve even spoken to the Trans Siberian Orchestra Concert; there were 5,000 people in the audience. They had 3-D lights and everything!
Melissa: 5,000 people!? How did you feel?
Melissa: (laughing) I bet!
Karen: Georgia has even given speeches to schools, people volunteering for Special Olympics, people who are donating money. She talks about how great Special Olympics is for her. She gets kids to see how much she can really do, especially in front of middle schoolers.
Georgia: I get to talk about what I did in my life. How to become a coach, or athlete or volunteer.
Karen: Being a Global Messenger has helped Georgia a lot. It’s given her a lot of self-confidence, self-concept, self-esteem and . . .
Karen: Yes, and passion. Self-esteem is big issue in the population. It can be hard to feel good about yourself because you have the opportunity for so many people to tell you, you can’t do things.
Melissa: You have great parents, Georgia.
Georgia: I know, I love my parents!
Melissa: What advice can you give to other parents as they try to address the dreams and aspirations of their children with developmental disabilities?
Glenn: You are always going to be your children’s best advocate. But with a special needs child, you have to take it to another level. No one knows what your child needs more than you do. It’s your job to be their best voice. Don’t take NO for an answer when you are fighting for your child and know it is a fight and that everyone wins when you are successful for your child.
Melissa: I absolutely agree, you are always your child’s advocate, at times that looks like intervening and other times stepping back.
Karen: I’d agree; it looks different in every situation. From birth through three, services are provided from an outside agency. From 3 - 22 years, those services are provided through the school system, so that’s how you get into the educational system. The hard part when you first start is sitting down with professionals who have had a short observational period with your child. They all have pages of reports about your kid and all she can’t do. You are sitting there hearing negatives and as a parent, all you can think about is what your child can do. You can’t dwell on the negative. That was our introduction to knowing that we had to be strong advocates for Georgia - to get the best supports, therapies, services - so she could be the best person she could be.
Georgia: (nodding her head) It’s just your ability to do your best.
Melissa: Tell me about your abilities, Georgia.
Georgia: My ability is to be stronger everyday. I take care of myself everyday when I go to work. Take showers, brush my teeth, get stuff ready for work, ride my bike every day (but not in the snow). I call Paratransit to take me to work and back home. That’s what I do.
Georgia is quite capable, proving all the time she can take care of herself. As our conversation came to a close, Glenn and Georgia excused themselves while Karen and I continued to chat. In a few minutes, Georgia returned, informing us that she had just booked her ride to work tomorrow by calling Paratransit. With a big smile on her face, she celebrated her competency and autonomy by giving each of us a high-five!