Taking Charge 3: Five Stories of Success and Self-Determination

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Over scenes of a girl running, a young man at a computer, and a man with a guide dog, the screen reads "Taking Charge 3: Five Stories of Success and Determination".
[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.
Students are in a ballet class.
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 it didn't...the way they tried to teach me didn't work, so it was really like 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, 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.
[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.
A young man is seated at a computer.
[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.
Randy walks with his dog up steps to the front door of a house.
[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.
[Randy] She's intelligent, she's quick-witted, she laughs at my jokes...
[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 am afraid it's going to be a pity date. But everybody's got those kinds of things. I'm not sure everybody's is as extreme as a disability, but everybody's got something out there.
Their wedding photo is shown.
[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.
Randy and his dog walk through an office.
[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, 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 hadn't encountered me.
A man in a wheelchair moves down an office hallway.
[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; 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.
[Narrator] At Todd's first job interview, he hadn't mentioned his disability over the phone. 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 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'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 you know, she's always been a fighter. And that's how she grew up with her mother and her father. And she instilled that into 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. He started playing with the trigger, flipping the safety off 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 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'll never be a true man, 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 going through some serious 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] For 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.
At home.
[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, 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 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. I don't think anything's going to stop me.
In slow motion Randy walks through the office.
[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. Nate, a high school senior, knows a lot about finding support.
[Nate] You've got to constantly ask questions, you've got to self advocate, like they say, all the time.
[Narrator] And that's what he does. Nate's learning disability makes some classes difficult, like Spanish. So he goes to tutoring after school.
[Narrator] When Nate was very young, it took a while for anyone to realize what a struggle it was for him to learn to read. Even his family didn't understand.
[Nate] They'd be like, "Oh, well, you're faking, you're playing around, you're just not trying hard enough or something." But I was trying.
[Narrator] Besides having a learning disability, Nate changed schools several times between kindergarten and second grade.
[Nate] So it made it hard for me to get things down. And I would be missing this and I would be like, "Oh, so how do I do that?" and the teachers would be like, "Oh, you don't know that?" And then they would just, you know, just pass me or something like that.
[Narrator] Nate's mom wanted to help him, but conferences at his school were discouraging back then.
[Marlinda] I remember one time them saying that he was mildly retarded. And I remember just breaking, I mean breaking down at that meeting and saying, "You can't put that on his record because my child is not mentally retarded."
[Narrator] Fast forward past grade school and, eventually, a correct diagnosis. Support from his mother, his teachers, and his church kept him trying to succeed. And Nate himself began to take charge of his future.
[Marlinda] Once he decided, "I'm going forward regardless of my learning disability," he's been going, grades shot up, I mean just tremendously. It started in the middle of ninth grade, and it's been like that ever since.
[Narrator] Nate went beyond going to tutoring and asking his teachers for help. He did some research and he found a program that would encourage his dreams of a college education.
[Nate] I had looked on the Internet, and then my mom, like I told her I was going to just see if they had any programs out there or internships that had to do with people with disabilities, with any types of disabilities. And so I started looking and I looked up and I found DO-IT.
[Sheryl] Nate, do you have something to add to that?
[Nate] Just motivating yourself and just trying to improve your weaknesses.
[Narrator] DO-IT, at the University of Washington, offers Summer Study sessions and year-round support and mentoring to college-bound students with disabilities. Nate approached his teachers for references, applied to the program, and was accepted.
[Nate] The overall program was really challenging to me, it just like, it really opened my mind.
[Narrator] In a DO-IT field trip to observe gorillas at the zoo, an instructor shared both scientific knowledge and her own personal story.
[Instructor] I was born with autism and I had a hard time getting along with human beings until I met the gorillas and learned how to get along better socially.
[Nate] When she spoke, and when she talked about her disabilities and her life struggles, that's what really opened me up, because....you know, believing in yourself and just knowing that you can do it.
[Nate] After college, what I want to do is be a real estate agent and just have fun with life.
[Narrator] Nate looked for support and found it. He met inspiring adults and connected with mentors in DO-IT. He recognized his own strength, and he learned how far it could take him.
[Nate] At the beginning and everything, I never thought that I would be in any type of position to even make it through high school at first. And so, you know, now that I'm just believing in myself more and you know, just having that support behind me, it's just making everything worthwhile to keep going. And I may keep struggling, but just keep going. And that's the most important thing.
[Jessie] Rosie! Come on... dog treats.
[Narrator] You've heard it before: the longest journey begins with the first step. Jessie is just getting started.
[Jessie] I go to Ballard High School, I'm a senior, I'm graduating 2006.....I have a sister named Morgan who's tall and who goes to UW, and I have my mom Linda and my mom Stephanie; and I have my little dogs, that one named Ginger, the other one's name is Rosie...and they like to get in trouble.
[Narrator] Jessie's mom Linda, a carpenter, built independence into their home.
[Jessie] This is my bedroom. This is called the blue room, 'cause I like the color blue... And over here is my sink and the toilet, so I have my own bathroom in my room. That's Lauren Jackson, the tallest Storm player in Seattle, and I like her because she's tall and she's a really good basketball player.
[Narrator] As Jessie grew up, Linda found that she was helping her daughter more than was needed. And letting Jessie explore her abilities was much more stressful than it had been with her older sister.
[Linda] With Jessie it has felt to me that it was cruel to not help with all the daily tasks. It's always felt like that. And now I'm trying to retrain myself to feel like it's cruel to not let her go through those things. Because she's able to do them. It takes a longer time, but she can do them just fine, and she doesn't mind doing them actually.
[Narrator] Jessie took a big step toward independence last summer, when she left home for two weeks to attend the DO-IT Summer Study program at the University of Washington.
She enters a room.
[Jessie] It was a new experience, because I've never been away from home that much... it's working out fine, though.
[Narrator] It was quite a challenging experience for Jessie's parents.
[Linda] It was terrible. I felt like, when I walked out of the room, I felt like I was going to throw up. You know, it's so great for her, of course, but I just felt that it would be really hard for her.
[Narrator] Jessie, on the other hand, fit right in.
[Jessie] It's kind of fun for me to be around kids and grown-ups with different disabilities and wheelchairs, because I'm the only one in my family.
[Narrator] Summer Study was two weeks of classes, discussions, entertainment, and learning how to take charge.
[Sheryl] How does that fit into my little scheme here?
[Jessie] Because then you guys can feel like a big family instead of individuals and know who's around you and who's there to support you.
[Linda] I really think that DO-IT laid a little charge in her, and it's burning. And she came home from DO-IT really excited... and just started doing things for herself Like she would rush up and hit the paddles for wheelchair doors before I could get there, and started saying, "Oh, no, I want to put my own socks on today," and just a lot of things that were different for her.
[Narrator] The biggest change was that Jessie took charge of her high school curriculum. She was determined to leave her "special education" program, which wasn't challenging enough.
[Jessie] I was trying to get out of it so I could do more academic classes, so I could have homework...and just be out more in the hallways instead of trapped in one room.
In a classroom.
[Narrator] Jessie's Favorite classes include Spanish and math.
[Narrator] Sometimes during the school day, when it's necessary, Jessie works with an assistant.
[Jessie] She helps me get my books out; she helps me in the bathroom.....and she helps with getting me to the bus, helping me with my jacket, and pretty much just helping me get stuff that's too high for me or I can't do on my own.
[Desiree] She's a good girl. She's got a lot of energy and she's just real happy in life. I'm not worried about her leaving school, cause when she leaves here, she's going to make friends, she's going to go on in life. She's going to do fine.
[Narrator] Between her assistant and her friends, Jessie does quite well at school. But she's very aware of the physical barriers that prevent her and others from being completely on their own. For example, there are no automatic door openers to get into the building.
[Jessie] I want to be able to talk to the head of the school and see if they can change the school just a little bit, so people in wheelchairs and with different disabilities, they could go there and be able to get around and do stuff on their own, instead of having other people do it for them.
[Narrator] Jessie's social awareness is growing in other ways, too. Her senior project reflects that.
[Jessie] My topic is going to be on little people, cause that's what my background is-well, one of them-and I want to be able to share that with other people instead of ignoring it. And other people, like grown-ups who have kids, get to know what little people are and if they have one, they know how to deal with one.
[Narrator] Jessie's plans include community college, a house of her own, and at least one dog. And she has advice for other students.
[Jessie] Do the right thing, pretty much. Just follow your classes, do what your dream tells you, and then go do it. It's hard, but you can manage.
[Narrator] And that's what success and self-determination are all about.