Impact Feature Issue on Parenting Teens and Young Adults with Disabilities

Graduation and Beyond:
Beth’s Story


Cathy Ficker Terrill is Beth’s mother and President/CEO of Ray Graham Association for People with Disabilities, Downers Grove, Illinois

My daughter’s dream was to walk across the graduation stage after four years of high school and receive her diploma with her friends. It was important to Beth to be able to celebrate with her classmates. She had to use her self-advocacy skills to fight to walk across that stage, but fight she did and she walked proudly across it. We used that experience to talk with Beth about the difference between those first four years of high school and how we could best use the next three years of high school in another way.

For so many students with disabilities, high school might be the last step in their formal education process. While there are new opportunities for young adults with developmental disabilities to access higher education, we know that for many the barriers are substantial. We used the graduation moment to find a way to maximize opportunities for Beth. Rather than thinking about what she needed to do to get ready for the next school year, Beth tried looking at it from a different perspective. We had her pretend that it was June 2008 and we asked her, “What was the most memorable moment of the past three years? What new friend did you meet? What life lesson did you learn? Which job made a lasting impression on you? What mistake did you make that taught you a valuable lesson? What obstacle was in your path that you never thought you’d overcome...until you did? What experience helped you decide what your new dreams will be for the future?”

Successful outcomes take a lot of planning. Beth decided to use the start of the school year as an opportunity to plan for positive and important outcomes in her life. We looked at what is important to Beth, rather than looking at her as someone with a disability who needs to have the year “planned.” The focus was geared toward making sure that Beth reached life goals meaningful to her while still in school. Beth decided to take a class at the local junior college, try out two part-time jobs, and take a few classes at the high school. She now starts her day at the high school with a class on life skills, where she is learning more about budgeting, maintaining her checkbook, and meal preparation. She’s creating a step-by-step cookbook with her digital camera; Beth intends to have a home of her own some day and she knows she needs to be able to cook to move out. Beth’s paychecks are automatically deposited, but she is learning to use a cash station card with a modified tracking system. Some days she attends the local junior college where she not only takes a class, but she also stays on campus two days a week for lunch, so she can build new social capital. Other days she goes off to one of her part-time jobs.

Technology and self-advocacy have been effective tools for Beth. Although the high school offered a minimal self-advocacy curriculum, we were able to ask the local park district to offer a session on self-advocacy. They used parts of the curriculum My Voice, My Choice from the Self-Advocate Leadership Network. Beth learned how to send effective communication to government leaders. Although she can’t write, she now has software from that reads all of her received e-mails and enables her to dictate her responses back. Beth can now correspond with her friends in college, legislators on policy issues important to her, and her family. She is not only using her voice – people are hearing her voice. Beth can also communicate with her cell phone. Technology has created cell phones that are easily pre-programmed. Beth’s cell phone is her link to friends, but it is also her link to safety. It has global positioning so if she can’t find us, we can find her. It is pre-programmed for quick emergency response. Although Beth can’t read street signs, she feels comfortable venturing out in the community with her cell phone as a key support. At home she uses a Teleface™ photo phone. It features 10 large memory keys with photo windows, so with a touch of someone’s face or the fire truck graphic, Beth can speed dial for fun or for safety.

As adults, when we look back at our high school years, it’s often the relationships we formed and the life lessons we learned that remain with us. While the facts and figures and technical skills we mastered laid the foundation for what we’ve achieved as adults, those usually aren’t the memories that flood our minds. With Beth, we try to use the opportunity of each new school year to make sure that when she looks back at the current year she will have memories of relationships and life lessons that will stay with her for a lifetime.