I will never forget the day I met the man who changed my life. It was a hot July day in Washington DC, and I had been advocating on Capitol Hill for military children with special needs.
For days, for meeting after meeting, I shared stories of children who had been repeatedly denied healthcare coverage which is vital to their growth and development. I shared my son’s story.
On my last day, before I headed home to North Carolina I was invited to a constituent coffee for Iowa. Though not a constituent the Children’s Hospital Association consultant believed I needed to attend this coffee.
I was going to meet someone who changed my life. I was going to be meeting one of my heroes.
The anticipation was overwhelming. My heart was pounding I was so nervous and excited. Meeting a hero; a person who has positively changed lives, thousands of lives, is a great moment.
I signed in, got my name tag, grabbed a cup of coffee, and started meeting staffers. I shared my son’s story and the stories of military children with special needs. I was assured repeatedly that I was in the right place to help our children.
Then I shared my story; the story of my invisible disability. You see, I too was a military child with special needs. I am gifted learning disabled and have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
I received little to no accommodations in school. Kids like me, gifted learning disabled and ADHD didn’t get many accommodations. We had to figure it out on our own. No, my mother said no to that, and she fought. My mother advocated for me, and it was amazing to see.
As I stood, waiting to meet my hero I remember saying, “If it hadn’t been for the Americans with Disabilities Act, I would have never received accommodations in college. Walking into the Disability Services Office was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, but I did it. I’m glad I did.”
While sharing my connection with disability, people gathered around to listen. They were smiling and nodding along because standing in the middle of Senator Tom Harkin’s office was one of the first generation beneficiaries of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
When I was brought over to meet Senator Harkin, I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. I was meeting the man who changed my life in ways I never knew possible. I was meeting my hero.
As I finally composed myself, I was encouraged to tell my story with Senator Harkin. He stood there and listened intently and smiling. Senator Harkin knew before I even told him, how difficult school was for me. He understood everything I was telling him and when I finally said to Senator Harkin, “because of you, I was able to go to college and get accommodations” we both cried.
I am not the first person to thank Senator Harkin and I will not be the last. I am one of many people whose lives were changed by the man who believes that people with special needs or disabilities have value and worth.
Just because I read and comprehend differently doesn’t make me less of a person. So I have ADHD; it’s not a disability to me. It’s my superpower. People with special needs bring a unique perspective to the world and it’s a perspective that is meaningful.
How I wish I could have been there, sitting in South Lawn of the White House in 1990. I wish I could have seen President George H.W. Bush sign civil rights legislation that empowered so many people with special needs.
President Bush said that it was “a splendid scene of hope” when he looked upon the south lawn. He was right. The “shameful wall of exclusion” was toppled on July 26, 1990.
As I reflect upon that hot summer day in 1990, or the moment when I finally met my hero, I begin to cry again. The memories of my struggles, frustrations, triumphs, hard fought battles, and meeting Senator Harkin crash over me like waves on the beach.
Never again, will I feel like less of a person because of my disability. I wear my disability like a badge of honor because of people like Representative Tammy Duckworth, Senator Bob Dole, Justin Dart, Helen Keller, President George H.W. Bush, Sandra Parrino, and of course, Senator Tom Harkin.
Senator Harkin, I have a promise to make for you: I won’t let you down. Thank you again for your belief in people like me.