College & Workforce Readiness

White House Honors Students Who Have ‘Beaten the Odds’

By Christina A. Samuels — July 23, 2015 8 min read
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Some 140 young adults who have “beaten the odds” and are headed to college were at the White House Thursday as part of the Reach Higher college attendance initiative spearheaded by first lady Michelle Obama.

Among them will be a student with Down syndrome who has a side business selling hand-dyed silk scarves and tote bags to help pay her college tuition; a young man with a learning disability who says

it’s “OK to learn differently"; and a self-advocate with autism who would like teachers to PLEASE stop asking her if she’s heard of Temple Grandin—a well-known autistic scientist known for her work in animal husbandry.

“We’d like you to stop asking us about cows,” the student says.

The youths participating in the “Beating the Odds” Summit were selected by more than 70 different nonprofit organizations to attend the daylong event. Four of those nonprofits have a mission to work with young people with disabilities: the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the Epilepsy Foundation; Eye to Eye (a mentorship organization for youth with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder); and the Global Down Syndrome Foundation.

The seven students selected by these organizations to go to the White House shared with me their stories of challenges overcome and lessons learned. They also offered advice on how educators can help other students like them.

Devon Adelman, an 18-year-old from Seattle, was a cheerleader, played soccer, and worked with the Special Olympics while she was in high school. Now she is headed to Highline College in Des

Moines, Wash., where she plans to take classes in marine biology. Highline’s Achieve program was created for students with intellectual disabilities. It includes courses for academic credit along with counseling, internships, and involvement in campus life. Devon particularly wanted a program that included academics, said her mother Susan.

Devon’s advice to other students is “definitely to believe in themselves, and make sure that they work hard.” She was selected to participate by the Global Down Syndrome Foundation in Denver. The six-year-old foundation’s primary mission is to support the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome, the first academic home in the country committed solely to research and medical care for people with Down syndrome.

Devon’s father, Sean, said that teachers and administrators should “enter into every student’s situation with no preconception of what they can and can’t do. It’s important that teachers have an open mind.” He added: “Every time I’ve thought Devon couldn’t do something, she’s proven me wrong.”

Megan Bomgaars, a 22-year-old from Evergreen, Colo., is already a bit of a YouTube star—a video she made in 2013 telling peers and educators “Don’t Limit Me!” has gotten more than

300,000 views. She graduated from Evergreen High School in 2011 and has taken courses at her local community college. She is enrolled at the University of Colorado and hopes to earn a certificate in film studies. She also has a business, Megology, which sells handmade crafts.

Megan’s mother Kris says that her daughter was fully included in her school from a young age. “Her best teachers were her peers,” she said.

Megan agrees that being fully included meant a lot for her. “People like me with Down syndrome, they should go to a regular classroom,” she said. “I did cheerleading, so I was included in my team. I was included with everything in school.” And for other students with Down Syndrome, “I just want them to be involved in other activities, just like I was in high school.”

Gabriel Douglas, a 17-year-old from Broomfield, Colo., plans to attend the Metropolitan State University of Denver. I was not able to speak to Gabriel before the White House event, but the Epilepsy

Foundation, which picked him to participate, shared part of the story Gabriel wrote about “beating the odds: “Five days into freshman lacrosse season, I learned my father committed suicide. I put down my stick with the intention of never playing again. I struggled through anger and grief. I was just finding my footing again when I had my first seizure. In a matter of days, my health and my life had spiraled out of control. Pain, depression, anger, confusion, anxiety. That was my life. It was hard to find hope.”

“I attended a summer camp for teens suffering from epilepsy. I realized that I must find the courage to live again and I must advocate for those who didn’t have ability to. I started to rehabilitate my mind and body with lacrosse, and devoted my time mentoring kids with epilepsy, and spreading awareness. Honestly, I don’t exactly have my future plotted out. I will be attending college in the fall, and I hope to devote my studies to learning languages, but I’d also like to continue working with the Epilepsy Foundation.”

Matt Pashby Jr., an 18-year-old who grew up in San Francisco, will be trading the West Coast for the Deep South when he attends Loyola University New Orleans in the fall. He

plans to study international business.

Matt, who was selected to participate in the White House event by the New York-based Eye to Eye organization, said he had no formal diagnosis of a learning disability until his sophomore year in his private Catholic high school. Up to that point, he said he was simply told that he wasn’t trying hard enough. Tests revealed he has a processing disorder, short-term memory loss, and test anxiety. He was given learning strategies, but credits Eye to Eye for helping him really figure out what kind of learner he is.

“It’s okay to learn differently,” Matt said. “My learning difference does define me—it defines who I am and I have so many stories behind my learning difference that show how hard I worked to get here. If you’re learning differently, you should totally own it, and be comfortable with it.”

Jake Young, an 18-year-old from Boulder, Colo., said it was around 3rd grade that he noticed his peers were moving on to chapter books, while he was still reading Dr. Seuss. His school didn’t really

have many supports for him, he said. Testing revealed his challenges with reading, writing, and spelling, but Jake said he struggled until high school, when he was able to type his papers. “Spell check saved my life,” he said.

Jake says Eye to Eye connected him with mentors who helped him see his learning differences in a new way. “By my junior year in high school, I had figured out learning strategies by myself, but I still hadn’t really come to terms with having a learning difference. I never shared about it. To me, that’s what Eye to Eye helped me with—it helped me integrate my learning difference into a part of my view of myself.” Both teachers and students need to learn more about what learning differences, are, he said. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding of what it means to have a learning difference,” he said. “It’s not some taboo thing.”

Jake is headed to Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where he plans to double major in Spanish and a social science field.

Jessica Waters, 18, of Beavercreek, Ohio, was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was 11. Many of her teachers were willing to make the accommodations she needed to participate in

class—particularly extra time on assignments, as she often needed a day or two to recover after a seizure.

But other times, educators seemed unsure of her needs. When she had a seizure in class one day, the subsitute teacher left her on the floor while other students walked over her to go to their next class. The teacher didn’t know the number to call the nurse, Jessica said.

And at times, teachers would try to compare her to another student in her high school with epilepsy. Why could that student do some things, but Jessica could not?

“As if it was a competition,” Jessica said. “Every student truly is different.”

She continued: “You also have the stigma with everyone knowing about this, having it written down—that’s the first thing your teacher sees about you. That was the one part that bothers me a lot. That disability doesn’t define the kid. I have epilepsy, epilepsy doesn’t have me.”

Jessica, a former cheerleader and varsity dance team member who has organized fundraisers to send other youth with epilepsy to a special summer camp, plans to attend the University of Kentucky to study public relations and marketing.

Elly Wong, an 18-year-old from St. Paul, Minn., capitalizes Autistic—"to indicate that it is a social and political identity as much as it is a diagnosis.” She plans to attend Syracuse University and major in

policy studies. She shared some thoughts with me by email.

“My school experience, due to a combination of disability and personality, was fairly insular. Since I did not get put in special ed classes, I didn’t know many other disabled students. I was very intense and very smart—I did not follow standard procedure for a lot of things, instead turning out my own work my own way. In my later high school years, I did start being better at being an Autistic student, getting more accommodations and understanding what I needed.”

“To educators: Autistic students exist in larger numbers than you think, and we don’t all fit stereotypes. Don’t assume we can’t do something. Don’t assume we can. The high-functioning/low functioning labels are rarely useful. Problems are caused by the environment and neurotypical students at least as often as they are by Autistic students. We’re not always the ones that need to change. We have a right to be here, and it is absolutely your job to enable that. And stop asking us if we’ve heard of Temple Grandin; every single U.S. Autistic high school student has heard of Temple Grandin and we’d like you to stop asking about cows.”

To students, Elly writes, “Know your rights. The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network has guides to navigating the system for students. Make use of the accommodations you need. By letting go of the idea of being a good neurotypical student, you can become a great disabled student.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.