We learn about ourselves when we help persons with disabilities

The Voice of Ability
By Connie Zienkewicz
Julie is a lady with a beautiful smile and a teaching spirit. She has been teaching her family, her teachers, and her caregivers what we need to know to assist her in this world – since her dad, Stan, and I misplaced the “parenting Julie manual” that they must have given us (not) at the hospital when she was born.
She was born with cerebral palsy and microcephaly which caused intellectual delays. Her care includes total assistance with all her activities of daily living: feeding, dressing, personal care, and learning.
Early in her life we were invited to a Family Enrichment Weekend presented by Families Together, Inc., where we met other families in similar circumstances, learned about inclusion in schools and in our community, and set high expectations for Julie and ourselves.
That led us to work with St. Francis of Assisi Parish to include Julie beginning in kindergarten with the assistance of volunteer stewards in the parish. Julie attended three mornings a week with a lady from the parish or Sister Catherine Switlik from the Ministry with Persons with Disabilities at Holy Family Center.
Julie’s kindergarten teacher, Sally Graham, introduced her to the families of her classmates as an exciting addition to their classroom. She told the families that their children would have the opportunity to know Julie, and she would offer them the chance to learn from and about people with disabilities. Many of Julie’s classmates from St. Francis continue to introduce their children to Julie when they see her at Mass.
Julie’s world is much richer because of her inclusion at St. Francis and at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School. During her academic years, the public school district provided support for Julie’s inclusion in Catholic schools. In 2004, during the high school graduation, Julie was pushed across the stage in her wheelchair by her friends to a standing ovation.
It was a difficult path for teachers and administrators who had never had a student like Julie in their class, but over the years Julie taught her family, classmates and teachers many things that will be important for years to come, such as:
• people with disabilities are people first
• all students can learn
• communicating with people with disabilities takes more time and effort
• teaching and caring for persons with disabilities can be hard work
All of us can be taught by people who come into our lives, which is why Julie was given to us by God – to learn from her and to bring a joyful spirit to our lives.