Taking Charge 1: Three Stories of Success and Self-Determination

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[Narrator] Success is how you define it. It's deciding where you want to go in life and finding a way to get there. For some of us, including people with disabilities, there may be obstacles to overcome. Everyone has challenges, everyone has choices, everyone can find their own path to success. And almost everyone has some help along the way. Sometimes, technology provides that help, playing a role in personal, academic, and professional goals. And sometimes it's people. We can learn from these young men and women who are pursuing their dreams and making a success of their lives.
[Narrator] Jessie started ballet in preschool. From the beginning, she loved it.
[Jessie] It's athletic...you're very fit, and you can do everything, and yet it's very poetic and like smooth and I don't know, it's got a bit of both in it.
[Narrator] At 16, ballet is still a joy for Jessie. As a small child, it was also a great solace. She could excel physically, even when her academic life was very painful.
[Jessie] My teachers in first and second grade, you know, they're like, "Oh, she's just slow, you know, just give her time," and you know, it didn't...the way they tried to teach me didn't work, so it was really like, you know, I had to create a way to get there.
[Narrator] In fact, Jessie had a learning disability. Her mother saw the warning signals, had Jessie tested independently, and found tutors for her. She was Jessie's greatest support. She knew Jessie could succeed.
[Jessie] Certain times, you know, I'd get down, it'd be like, you know, I'm just stupider than everyone else; but my mom wouldn't let me believe that. She's fantastic, you know. She's always there for me; she won't let me fail. I mean, we have the same goal, my success; but even sometimes when I get down, she's always there, you know, she's like, of course you can do this.
[Narrator] Jessie's mom was coach and cheering section in one. She made Jessie's success a priority, even though she had no idea what it was like to struggle with schoolwork.
[Jessie] We're exact opposites. She's totally and completely verbal, and she's the kind of person who never had to study, ever. And my sister's that way, too. So it's hard, she had to imagine what it was like for me and like, she was the one who started this whole different approaches, you know, about learning, and like spelling, I could never, like, write, so we did it orally in the dark, stuff like that.
[Jessie] In the beginning, Cambodia is located in Southeast Asia.
[Narrator] With help from her mom and her tutor, Jessie's been able to create new learning techniques that work for her. She uses a computer with speech recognition software for writing papers, speaking the words into a microphone. She also uses books on tape to help with reading. It's still a struggle, and she still has to work harder than most of her classmates. But Jessie feels that the extra effort will pay off when she goes to college.
[Jessie] I've developed a good work ethic, and I can do it; I can work hard, you know; it'll be harder for me, but at least I'll have the skills and all that, so....
[Narrator] And always, Jessie continues to challenge herself physically. She's been on her high school's cross-country team for two years.
[Jessie] When I run, I let go of everything, and I just focus on running, and you know, I kind of clear my head, and it's good.
[Narrator] She applies a sports metaphor to her academic life as well. If you have to climb a hill, she says, you get to ski down the other side.
[Jessie] If you work hard at something, you'll get it eventually. So I applied that to academics, and so I've done it in smaller senses, and I know I can do it again. If I climb, I'll get to ski down.
[Randy] ITS Help Desk, this is Randy
[Narrator] Randy Hammer has been blind since birth. He's also the kind of person who expects things to turn out well. He works as a computer help-desk analyst in a major corporation, a job he started immediately after college.
[Randy] My personal opinion is that that silver lining that everybody talks about is there. You've just got to know how to get to it. And sometimes it takes some work.
[Narrator] Randy's goals were to earn a bachelor's degree and work in the computer field. To get there, he used a computer with screen reader software and a speech synthesizer, which read aloud the text that appeared on his screen. He had to learn to interface his own adaptive technology with a variety of computer systems, first at school, and later at work.
[Randy] I take the same adaptive equipment with me. And so I learn a few more tricks about it in adapting to the new situation.
[Narrator] Eventually, Randy plans to complete a master's degree. He has high expectations for himself. He learned that from his parents.
[Randy] First of all, they mainstreamed me from the beginning. And along with mainstreaming, they pushed me really hard. They expected the same from me as they expected from my sister, who was without disabilities. I did everything that any other student did, and I was basically treated the same by my teachers and, to an extent, my peers.
[Narrator] In his career, Randy is very goal-oriented. But it's not his whole life. Home is important to him, too- because of Denise.
[Denise] Come on, Yea! Good boy.
[Randy] She's intelligent, she's quick-witted, she laughs at my jokes.... She's just a wonderful human being.
[Narrator] Denise and Randy met in high school-often a difficult time socially. With a little less self confidence, Randy might have let his disability get in the way of asking her out. But that didn't happen.
[Randy] Everybody's got their "Oh, they're not going to like me because..." and a disability is just one of those things that you kind of use as, "I'm not comfortable dating because I'm afraid it's going to be a pity date." But everybody's got those kinds of things. I'm not sure, you know, if everybody's is as extreme as a disability, but everybody's got something out there.
[Narrator] Randy and Denise were married soon after college. Once again, Randy credits his parents with planting the seeds of success in his life. They taught him about respect for others.
[Randy] You want to be equal. You want to have both people happy with the relationship. You want to have both people enjoying each other, enjoying being with each other.
[Narrator] For Randy, part of living a successful life is breaking down stereotypes. He tries to educate people about how to treat someone with a disability.
[Randy] The idea isn't to draw attention to yourself. It's to handle the situation quietly, and allow, you know, the person to maybe get something out of it.
[Narrator] Accepting the challenges of life in a positive spirit, Randy expects the best out of people-and out of himself. He plans to make a difference in the world.
[Randy] I figure that if I kind of break down the walls of thinking of one individual, maybe it won't change the way the world works, but you know what, that's....I can't do anything about that. I can maybe help one person think differently. And if I do, and that person comes upon another disabled person, maybe they'll look at them with different eyes than they would if they had not encountered me.
[Narrator] When Todd Stabelfeldt meets someone new, he knows that his disability is probably the first thing they notice. So he likes to address it immediately.
[Todd] It's a good icebreaker. People want to know, this is obviously an attraction; you know, they're interested, they want to know as humans. And so I find that it's real easy for me to talk about it. I'll get it out in the open and get it over with, and then we can move on with our conversation. I don't mind, you know.
[Phone dialing]
[Narrator] At Todd's first job interview, he hadn't mentioned his disability over the phone.
[John] This is John [Todd] Hey, John, this is Todd with cortex.
[John] Todd, my man, how are you?
[Todd] Doing good, how you doing, Bud?
[John] Good.
[Narrator] When he arrived, there were some awkward moments as the interviewer rearranged his office to accommodate Todd's wheelchair. But the interview quickly moved to the important questions.
[Todd] And the second question was, "Well, how do you use a computer? How do you... how can you program?" So once I told him about my assistive technology, then the third question was, "How much do you want?" And once I told him, it was, you're hired. Can you start tomorrow?"
[Narrator] Todd chose computer programming because he knew there would be a great demand for his services. He also wanted to make money as quickly as possible so that he could support himself. From the time he was paralyzed, at 8 years old, his mother nurtured the idea of independence.
[Todd] I got home from the hospital and she said, "You're moving out when you're 18." You know, "You're going to get a job and go to school. I'm not going to take care of you the rest of your life." And she's always been a fighter. And that's how she grew up with her mother and her father. And so she instilled that in me, and I took off with that. So, we're fighters.
[Narrator] Todd needed that fighting instinct. At 3, his father was killed in a motorcycle accident. At 8, Todd's childhood changed even more dramatically. Todd and his cousin found his father's old guns and started playing with them.
[Todd] One gun we were playing with was a bolt action 22 rifle. I loaded it and I gave it to my cousin. Basically, he started looking at the gun, from his story, flipping the trigger and the safety off and on, and shot me right in the chin.
[Narrator] At first, Todd didn't realize what had happened. When it finally hit home, he needed all the support he could get from family and friends.
[Todd] We all really pulled in together and became one big support system. And we drew in tight and became a big family. And so when things started happening, like, Oh my gosh, I can't walk, I'm never going to walk again, I'm never going to be a true man, you know, I'm inadequate, how am I going to provide for my family, you know, those things start coming in, and that's when you start getting a little bit emotional and start going through some serious.... Some brain things, as far as, what am I going to do?
[Narrator] His faith and his family helped Todd move on. He left bitterness behind, enjoyed high school, and went on to technical school. Today, technology is vital to his career, helping him perform a job he likes.
[Todd] One, I obviously can't open the door, so basically, you know, you can set up automatic doors off of switches and things, so they set that up on my wheelchair, and that's how I open a door at home and at the office. And as far as computer working, it's real simple, on-screen keyboard with sort of a stick mouse, sip and puff, you know, one puff single click, two puffs double click; and that's what I use. And then just a simple book stand and a mouth wand for magazine turning, paper turning, that's really it.
[Todd] Good evening, Carol, I'm home.
[Carol] Hi. Todd.
[Narrator] Todd lives on his own, pays for his own attendants, and enjoys his work. At some point, though, he plans to return to college for a career change. He'd like to work with people in some way. And he wants a schedule that allows for family time.
[Todd] I definitely want to get married. I want to be a good dad; I definitely see myself in that future. I plan to be sort of an independent type, my own boss, make my own hours, so I can adjust to that schedule. And you also have to adjust to your disability. You know, definitely your disability's in control of you, and you're along for the ride. You can't tell your body what you want it to do; it tells you. And you've got to learn to listen to it and take care of it.
[Narrator] With his strong determination, there's no doubt Todd will succeed.
[Todd] I set high goals. I need to set high goals. I need to set goals that are so far out there that, you know, can anybody reach them? And so far I've reached every single goal that I've set. And I plan to set every goal and reach them with complete success, and I don't think anything's going to stop me.
[Narrator] All of these young people have a promising future. And what they all have in common is self-determination. They're making their own choices, setting their own goals, and defining their own path to success. They're learning to be independent adults. In your search for success, their suggestions may help you, too.