#TheyTaughtMe: Advocacy is an Act of Love [by Cara Clarke]
When I was in first grade, my mother became a house parent for a group home in northeastern Pennsylvania. It was a home for teenage and young adult males with various disabilities, including autism and Down syndrome. On Fridays, my mother, brother and I would drive just over an hour to the house and stay the weekend or longer during the summer. My aunt stayed at the house during the week.
My aunt and mother worked at this home for a long time, and the boys became family to me. Typically, three boys lived in the home but I was closest with John. John could easily have been my brother — we were both short in stature with the same red hair and blue eyes. The obvious difference between us was that John had Down syndrome. Being a child and taken with John’s quick humor and unbridled energy, I never viewed John as being different.
We fought and played like many siblings do. MTV was just becoming popular, and John and I would often move all of the living room furniture to the edges of the room so we could dance to Michael Jackson, Dire Straits and the Talking Heads. John loved Michael Jackson and proudly wore his “Beat It” shirt while mimicking Michael’s gravity defying moves. I loved John and to this day, I miss him and think of him with warmth and admiration. Who wouldn’t want a John in their lives? He was one of the most exuberant people that I have ever known.
Since then, I never stopped working with people with disabilities. In high school, I volunteered to tutor in special education classes, and during college summers, I worked at Camp Loyaltown in Hunter, New York, a camp for children and adults with developmental disabilities. I spent five summers at that camp, which we dubbed “Magic Mountain.” I recall a moment when a little boy with autism, who was nonverbal and did not like to be touched, grabbed my face to peer into my eyes. It was life affirming, and I went on to spend more than 10 years working in group homes, providing case management and acting as a director of community supports before becoming certified as a special education and English teacher. My love for John and all of the other individuals who I have worked with fuel what I do. By advocating for them, I am always growing and becoming a better person.
Advocates, who are just regular people with a passion for quality of life and equality for everyone, are desperately needed. One way that you can help is by volunteering for or raising money for the Special Olympics. I have volunteered for the Special Olympics, and coaching is a lot of fun! But more importantly, the joy that the athletes exude is magic.
Other organizations that are often looking for volunteers are self-advocacy groups. Self-Advocacy Online can link you with local groups, which are typically made up of people with and without disabilities. When I worked as the director of community supports at a local chapter of The Arc, I worked with our local self-advocacy group. These adults were passionate and had much to teach our local community and politicians about the need for fair and equal businesses and job opportunities.
I find self-advocacy groups especially crucial since disability rights really began with civil rights. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words still resonate strong today: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I know that the lives of people with disabilities matter, so I need to help others to help myself. If I did not care, what would that say about me? Any healthy person can become disabled at any time. Don’t you deserve a quality life? That certainly should not change with a disability.
While so many organizations can use volunteers, many areas in the United States are experiencing shortages in special education. While this job is certainly not easy (in fact, it can be both mentally and physically exhausting), teaching is a noble profession and every time one of my students has an “a-ha” moment, my heart swells. It is the most important thing that I do, right after being a parent.
USC Rossier offers a special education credential that is flexible and can be earned online at your own convenience. I am a teacher because, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once beautifully said, “It is one of the beautiful compensations in this life that no one can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.”
The time to help is today.
Cara Clarke is a teacher, writer, wife and mother of four. She lives on the beautiful island of Kauai where she teaches middle school English and special education.