More than 19% of Indiana’s population is composed of adults and children with a disability. Every March, the Hoosier state celebrates Disability Awareness Month.  On March ninth, the Joseph Maley Foundation partnered with Holy Spirit Catholic School to provide a unique opportunity to conclude their weeklong disABILITY Awareness program.

Joseph Maley Foundation programs are always tailored to the specific needs of a school. When Disability Awareness Month, ISTEP testing and the opening of the Paralympic Games all coincided with JMF’s programming week at Holy Spirit, the opportunity for a unique speaker panel came to fruition.  Working in conjunction with Holy Spirit principal Rita Parsons, Joseph Maley Foundation staff invited four individuals with disabilities to sit on the panel, and share their experiences with students during this school-wide event.

The presentation began with a short video provided by George Martin, a member of the deaf community in central Indiana.  George is currently featured in the Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities campaign for Disability Awareness Month.  After the video, George spoke about the importance of remembering that individuals with disabilities are still people, just like the students in the audience.  He mentioned, “We enjoy the same things you do and want to be treated just like you treat your friends.”

After each speaker shared their stories, students were able to ask questions.  Many of the initial questions dealt with the speakers’ identities as individuals with disabilities.  Maggie McGowan, a fifth grade student from St. Pius Catholic School who has dyslexia, spoke about some of the difficulties she encountered in the classroom.  However, Maggie wanted audience members to know, “I wouldn’t give up my dyslexia for anything.  It makes me who I am.”

Liesel Magnuson offered, “Identity is who you are and who you are meant to be.” Upon her birth, Liesel’s mother was told that she would never walk, talk, or have any quality of life due to cerebral palsy. Liesel and her mother, however, had other plans.  Not only is she a gifted public speaker, Liesel is a world traveler who recently climbed the Great Wall of China.  She emphasized to Holy Spirit students that they should not let the words of others hold them back while they are pursing something they love.

Students were able to hold the medal that track athlete Ayden Jent won during the 2016 Rio Paralympics.  Ayden was also born with cerebral palsy, but did not allow that diagnosis to limit him.  He went on to compete in both the 100 and 200 meter-dash events in Rio. When asked what he thought his biggest accomplishment was, Ayden said, “No matter how many times you get knocked down, you have to get back up and move forward again.  It really depends on the person, I think.  For some of you in the room, passing a test or making a sports team is a really big accomplishment right now.  It’s going to change over time.  So far, my biggest accomplishment was not giving up.”

Speakers, such as George, Maggie, Liesel, and Ayden, help students in JMF’s disABILITY Awareness program understand that all individuals need to feel accepted and respected.  Thank you to our recent panel at Holy Spirit School for helping us spread that message of inclusion!

Post written by:

Courtney Basso, Events and Communications Director