Laura Lee: The Legacy She Left Behind

Since I had my son Luis, I have met so many people who serve as inspirations to me. These people saw a barrier to their loved ones with disability and took it upon themselves to knock down that barrier. Some of these people may have simply done it for their own child but their actions benefit the entire community. No doubt you recognize some of these people: Terri Couwenhoven who wrote books and travels the country teaching people with intellectual disabilities (ID) about puberty, relationships, and sexuality; Stephen Beck, the man behind the ABLE Act that will give people with disabilities some control over their finances while maintaining their benefits. 

But you may not have heard of Laura Lee or her mother Stephanie Smith Lee. And they are people worth knowing. 

Laura was a young woman with Down syndrome. Throughout her life, she made a number of firsts in public speaking, advocacy, and education. She was the first person with DS to speak before a number of school boards and legislative committees. As a young student, her family advocated for the creation of a program to support her to attend Catholic school. Later in life, she was one of the first students to attend the George Mason LIFE program, the first of postsecondary education programs for people with ID to run in the country. Through her words and actions, she changed people’s mind about what people with ID can achieve. In this video, you can see Laura taking the subway and going to her paid job at the World Bank:

 While Laura had broken many barriers, her mother made sure that the barriers remained broken for the rest of us. Stephanie worked at the federal level to secure funding to create inclusive college programs in colleges and universities, conduct research and training, and to disseminate information to the public. So today, dozens of inclusive college programs exist across the country and many more are being created. These college programs not only help people with ID continue to learn, they offer the opportunity for them to improve employment skills and gain independent living skills. Quite literally, if it were not for the Lees, college would remain closed today to our children with DS. If you’d like to learn more about inclusive college programs, watch these videos on the ThinkCollege website:

 Here is a 2011 Education Week article describing Laura's national role in inspiring and creating postsecondary education for students with ID:

 In February of this year, Laura passed away unexpectedly at the age of 33. Even though I had only met her briefly, I was saddened by the news. In her short 33 years, Laura had lived a full life and has left a tremendous legacy for the DS community. Hers was a life worth living.

About the Author: Yvonne Hu-Cotto is mother to 8 year old Luis (DS) and wife to musician Orlando Cotto. They travel frequently to visit families in the U.S., Taiwan and Puerto Rico. She works at Montgomery College, a community college in Montgomery County, Maryland, and is passionate about giving people, with and without disabilities, the opportunity to attend college. She is also passionate about SCUBA diving and is dreaming of the day when she can dive with Luis. She is on the board of CDSPG and coordinates the education workshops for the organization.