As I fill out my college applications, I can’t help but think of my brother and sister who will not be going to college or even graduating from high school. They will never have a high paying job. They will never be able to drive a car. They will never be able to independently support themselves. When society sees people like them, they automatically jump to certain conclusions.
Andrew, my younger brother and the easiest person to get along with, was born with autism. As he got older, we began to realize that he was unable to form words and complete sentences. He avoided social situations with people he wasn’t familiar with. He communicated with hand signals, babbling, and the occasional pinching. Having been raised side-by-side with him, we developed an extraordinary relationship; I understand his hand signals and babbling as his version of speech. When I was little, I remember assuming that he would never talk. However, with the assistance of a fantastic network of teachers, he began to prove me wrong. Even though he has become more verbal, I still have yet to have a real conversation with him. Nevertheless, he has taught me that building a connection isn’t just verbal, but instead it’s how you choose to understand someone else.
For the last eight years, he has been involved with an ice hockey team built of players with a variety of disabilities. Getting him to stay on the ice for an extended period of time is a challenge. Andrew, standing at six feet and weighing two-hundred and ten pounds, is a difficult person to reason with when his mind is focused on something. When he is upset or frustrated, he often communicates in a physical manner. I happened to be in his way on the latest occasion, by showing him a timer on my phone I calmed him down and prolonged his time on the ice. He taught me that instead of engaging in a physical fight I should put myself in his position and try to find a helpful compromise that he too can understand.
Grace, my older sister and perhaps the toughest person I’ve ever met, was born with Down syndrome. Over the course of her life she has endured three open heart surgeries and pneumonia three times. Constantly, I’ve been in situations where people speak to my sister as if she’s a small child even though she is eighteen years old.
Unfortunately for Grace, she happens to wear her disability on her face. People tend to make assumptions about her competence prior to interacting with her. This happens to people with all kinds of disabilities. For example, our family went on a canoe/camping trip and happened to share a camp site with a Boy Scout troop for people with disabilities. As we were packing up in the morning they noticed Grace and Andrew; the leader of their group asked us what agency we were with. They assumed the only way kids like Grace and Andrew could be on a canoe trip was if they were with a charitable organization. We chuckled and replied that we were just a couple families trying to be normal.
Because Grace and Andrew are my siblings, I’ve learned that happiness, competence, and success can take many forms. However, finding this in anyone takes time, an open mind and the willingness to adopt new values. Most of my peers define success through money, grades and achievements. However, I have been taught by my siblings that above all success is more about respecting others, being kind, and celebrating the little things. Every day, I express the pride I have in both my siblings and everything they have taught me. The most important thing they have taught me is that, in the end, people don’t remember grades, money, and recognition; they remember the relationships they built through understanding and getting to know each other.
About the Author: Alex Willard is a freshman at Frostburg State University.