The Great State of Chatham is a double edged sword…

I am “from here,” meaning I was born here and have stayed. I have either lived downtown or worked downtown or both for over 40 years. I remember when you could rent a three story townhouse on Gordon Street for $50 a month. I remember Chatham County when people lived at Tybee because it was cheap. Here are the names of Chatham County school board superintendents I’ve known and dealt with starting with the present and heading back: Lockamy, Bowen, O’Sullivan, Edwards, Russo, Goodman, Carter, Etheridge, Formey, Raines, Formey and Harrison.


I love the parks, architecture, marshes, and beach. I also love many of the people here and the stories of interesting and iconic people who were here before me. I-16s mind-numbing boredom acts as a useful buffer, keeping us far enough way from Atlanta that we don’t have to cow down to every whim of the Imperial City. In short, I love the Great State of Chatham.


With that said, this weekend was a wake up and a reminder for me that we have to be very careful about being so intoxicated with The Great State of Chatham that we lose our sense of vision, of big vision, of vision that allows us to create useful and just change. Here’s what woke me up.


I was in Macon at a weekend workshop and saw a power point presentation about a young woman with Down Syndrome whose life looked exactly like the lives my 19 and 17 year- old daughters live. The young woman’s mother spoke at the workshop about and talked about vision. “My husband and I created a vision of what we wanted Mary’s life to look like. It was not a vision filled with special education classrooms and Special Olympics and special camps. It was a vision of going to a Montessori pre-school close to our house. It was a vision of attending public school and being in regular classes with ordinary kids. No other families seemed to have this vision, or at least were not persistent enough with the school system to create the vision, so Mary was almost always the only child with a disability in her class. Our vision was for Mary to spend her time doing the same things that all kids her age were doing and doing them in the same places that other kids were doing them. It took a lot of thinking and working together with people to develop accommodations and adaptations to support this vision. Sometimes it takes extraordinary effort to help someone have a good ordinary life. She graduates this year and we’ve been talking about what’s next! We have been pushing college. She said, ‘Enough school for now, I want to work.’ So, we are all on the look out for a good 30 hour a week job. Mary dances with a studio and wants to keep doing that. Between work, dance, and looking for a boyfriend, she’ll have plenty going on after she graduates high school.”


We also saw a DVD that told the story of the Alberta (Canada) Association for Community Living working with colleges and universities through out the Province to create a way for young people with intellectual disabilities to attend college. Again, adaptation and accommodation were two tools used to create this opportunity. This is how “special educators” used their skills, to help faculty members create adaptations and accommodations in their curriculum to individualize it for the student. In this story “special” is a skill set to promote inclusion, not a place to put people out of the way. The most powerful part of the DVD were the testimonials from faculty members and students about the role and impact that having people with intellectual disabilities as students on campus had made.


The President of Alberta Community College said it best, “This works best when you don’t notice it. All you notice is that you see an occasional person who you would not have expected to be here a few years ago.”


In both stories we saw individual people being included and assisted to participate as individual people, not as part of a group.


I would love to have local officials and families hear and see these stories and compare the lives of the folks they meet in the film to the lives of young women with intellectual disabilities in Savannah.


I love Chatham County and Savannah. But I love this kind of welcome and creativity and justice more. What about you?

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