We must take control of our own destiny, but we must avoid alienating
those who may be gatekeepers to future success.
— Dr. Lawrence Scadden —
When and how did I learn to take charge of my own life? People who know me may think that I have always had self-determination: I have had a successful career moving from place to place, job to job, going where there were exciting new opportunities. That was not always the case!
As a teenager, my first love was science and mathematics. I wanted to become a scientist or engineer, but teachers, counselors, and family urged me to reconsider, saying, "There is no place for a blind person in these fields." I believed them. Not until my early twenties did I take charge of my own life and make a plunge into science. I was in graduate school working on an advanced degree in government studies and teaching part-time in a community college when I began taking courses at a nearby college looking for an area of science in which I could make a mark. Human perception was the answer. Most of the scientific literature on human perception dealt with vision, leaving important research on touch and hearing for others, like me. I changed my field, and my life changed forever.
When reading this exciting new volume, Creating an E-Mentoring Community, I recognized that many of the young people who contributed to the book achieved self-determination as teens. Why did they succeed at that age when I did not? Many good reasons explain the difference. In the 1950s when I was a teenager, those of us with disabilities had few role models to look to for guidance, and we had few opportunities to learn and demonstrate our capabilities and interests. Today many opportunities exist, and information regarding successful people with disabilities can be disseminated far more easily than in the past. The young people who contributed to this volume all were involved in exemplary programs that promoted self-esteem and fostered self-determination. Reading about their experiences and examining their advice, I am aware of the similarities and the differences between opportunities of today and those of my era. For instance, the factors that promote success and achieving self-determination are quite similar.
Todd, in an E-Community Activity in Chapter Four, says that one's attitude and personality are key factors for success. I agree even though these personal traits can be pretty rough around the edges sometimes; persistence may be only a shade away from being stubborn or obstinate. A balanced approach in human relations is important, although often difficult to manage. We must take control of our own destiny, but we must avoid alienating those who may be gatekeepers to future success.
Todd and Randy commend their parents for expressing high expectations for them and their lives early on. I do too, but, as this book points out, many people with disabilities achieve self-determination without parental support. It is possible, but it is much easier when one's own attitude regarding future success is learned early from one's family.
Jessie says that successful people need to be resourceful and adaptable. I continue to find that to be good advice every time I tackle a new challenge. People with disabilities are often pioneers, moving into new arenas where few can give advice. We must turn to our own strengths to solve problems of access and to perform tasks independently when necessary.
Randy says that it is important to be resilient. Oh yes! Mistakes, failures, and negative attitudes may seem to be barriers to forward motion, but we cannot let these deter our progress. Resilience is an important trait we need to have working for us all the time.
The primary difference for today's young people with disabilities from that known by those of us from an earlier generation relates to the opportunities and the information available today that promote personal growth. Most of the contributors to this book are participants in DO-IT programs or projects funded by the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation and the National Science Foundation. Both of these programs are dedicated to giving young people with disabilities the opportunity to learn and to develop skills that will help them find their own accommodations and to be active and productive members of our communities. They learned early in their lives that their abilities are far more important than their disabilities. They serve as role models for each other, but they learn about others with disabilities who have gone before and who are successful in a myriad of careers and avocations. These are experiences and data that combine to produce knowledge, and knowledge is power.
The ideal would be to allow all young people with disabilities to have these opportunities, but that is not the reality. The next best thing is to provide more and more of these young people with the experiences vicariously through sharing the words of many who have had opportunities to participate in these exemplary programs. This volume—combined with the intervention of parents, teachers, and mentors—can provide these vicarious experiences for thousands of other young people with disabilities. Young people are heard sharing their insights and advice on achieving success. All of them have disabilities and have conquered them.
The contributions from these individuals are quite poignant, but the book contains other valuable guides for parents, teachers, mentors, and people with disabilities themselves. The author, Sheryl Burgstahler, has applied her wealth of knowledge and experience gained through years of working with people with disabilities to assembling a wealth of activities that will help all readers to interact with the information presented by the contributors. Readers, then, can take new skills and ideas to help them as they work with other young people who have disabilities.
The book's contributors, along with the author, strongly promote the concept that people with disabilities and their parents, teachers, and mentors all must profess and maintain high expectations for the person with a disability. It was gratifying to read this over and over in the book because it echoes something I have used to conclude dozens of public presentations over the last twenty years. I have numerous opportunities to address gatherings of people with disabilities and others who have contact with them. Often I talk about my own life experiences, urging others to help people with disabilities attain the same success. My concluding remarks frequently follow this theme. Speaking first to people with disabilities, I say, "Come fly with me; let your expectations soar!" Then to their parents, teachers, and counselors I say, "Come fly with them; let your expectations for them soar! Give them the opportunities and the tools to let them achieve their goals." Finally, to everyone else I say, "Come fly with us! Let our expectations for all people with disabilities soar!" This book is a tool that can raise expectations for all readers.
Lawrence A. Scadden, Ph.D.
Retired Program Officer, National Science Foundation (NSF)