Personal Story

Feature Issue on Disability Rights, Disability Justice

It Can Happen For You, Too


Curtis Harris participated in the Disabled I Am project. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.

A man wearing a Chicago Bears sweatshirt looks straight ahead with a serious expression as he reviews his speech notes.

Curtis Harris, at home in Chicago, goes over his notes for a speech at an Illinois residential facility for people with disabilities.

I’m sitting in my apartment, where I live alone, waiting for a ride that will take me to a state-operated development center. I will talk to people there about what it has been like for me to live independently. It feels great to give people hope, but we are up against the unions and parents or guardians who want to keep institutions open.

I was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4. Forty years ago, in 1984, I was the first student to enroll in a program for students with autism in the Chicago Public Schools system. I was in school long after the federal education laws for students with disabilities were passed, but I didn’t get the education I needed.

I went to three different schools, and eventually was placed in a program for students with significant disabilities at a school near some housing projects, with many students who were gang members. In 8th grade I got jumped on by other students, suffering a bruised kidney and liver. My father protected me and served as a parent on a local school council, and I was on the student council for one year, but after several more times getting beaten up by students, my father took me out of the disability classroom and placed me in a regular classroom. Even though I was the student of the year in the 8th grade classroom, it was pure hell trying to survive the cruelty of the students of the entire school.

Society then saw and still stereotypes autism as a negative thing. It sees autism and ADHD, which I was also diagnosed with, as things we can grow out of, but they are life-long. I started high school in a segregated classroom and had only a few mainstream classes. After my sophomore year, I was completely mainstreamed into regular classes. I graduated from high school but went to college unprepared, thanks to being in segregated classrooms for so much time. I did pass classes at Columbia College Chicago and was an honor student for several semesters, but I was forced to leave college when I had anxiety and panic attacks.

I have completed job-training programs and did some part-time work through Vocational Rehabilitation Service, but still haven’t found a long-term job. I’ve faced discrimination from potential employers.

I am involved in several advocacy groups, probably too many! It can be overwhelming, but it is important work. I joined Access Living’s AYLP program, Northside Action For Justice, Illinois Single Payer Coalition, Illinois Poor People’s Campaign, Chicago ADAPT, Disability Rights Action Coalition for Housing and was appointed to the Illinois Council on Developmental Disability, among other groups.

Being part of the Disabled I Am project was important, too, because it lets people show pride in their disability and in their life as a whole person.

When I talk to people today about my life, I want to say to them, “It can happen for you, too. You can live in the community. Today I can do what I want and come and go when I please. Anybody can get the right supports to live and work in the community.”