My brother Clay loved to learn. He learned for the sake of learning, retaining probably about 75% of what he read and experienced.
He started reading the newspaper at 3 and a half years old and read the encyclopedia from A-Z at 10. Clay knew a bit about any topic you could think of no matter how obscure. (Back then you couldn’t look it up on a cell phone and we didn’t need to… we just asked Clay.) His wicked sense of humor insured I stayed on top of my game. He had a quick wit with dead pan delivery. He let his goofy fly on the regular. He had a passion for life and for his convictions, and incredible compassion for others too. He was always one of the easiest people to be around. It really didn’t matter who he met, with his knowledge he could have a meaningful conversation with anyone about whatever they were into, whatever turned them on — a conversation that, infused with his wisdom and unique point of view, meant something, almost always, to the other person.
And especially to me. I was so proud to be his sister.
In the early 1970s, neighborhood public elementary schools did not have to take a child with a disability, a child with spina bifida. In fact, many children with disabilities were never sent to school. It was a different time, previous to PL 94-142 (least restrictive environment, equal access, individualized educational plan). It took many meetings with many principals and eventually one unique commitment from a single principal to change Clay’s life. This man gave Clay the opportunity to be educated at his level (he was two grades ahead of others his age) for the first time and from then on.
Though mainstreaming was empowering for Clay and he had many friends at school and in the neighborhood, he still lacked someone around him who shared his set of challenges, a friend who literally sat on the sidelines with him during physical activities or events that lacked wheelchair access. He lacked friends who had endured similar surgeries and the experience of constant medical struggles.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of the development of Special Olympics. Clay looked forward to them every year. Here he found his squad, formed friendships, cheered loud and competed on a level scale. The Special Olympics program was an important piece of the fabric that made Clay’s development possible. Each year that day gave Clay and every athlete an opportunity to feel the encouragement of a crowd, the satisfaction gotten from hard work and the knowledge that anything is possible.
The United States has its problems, but it is the place where Clay survived the days following his birth, encephalitis and medical challenges throughout his life. Before other countries did it, the U.S. provided him an appropriate education from nursery school through college. Our country had supports in place such as the Special Olympics program that empowered him and eventually led him to live a completely independent urban life with his spouse while working for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in downtown Washington, DC.
The people around him throughout his life picked up the energy of the unique person that he was and were motivated by him. Clay’s childhood best friend became a spinal surgeon as a result of their friendship. People listened more intensely to his wisdom. His happy demeanor was contagious to a square mile. His soul seemed closer to the surface. He saw the forest through the trees. His sense of humor always so relevant, infused with insights. He changed people’s points of view. For those who casually saw a glimpse of my brother confidently wheel around DC, his success was also a subconscious reminder of what a great nation we live in, the humanity we have when we get things right. Dignity for all, opportunity for all… this is a sign of a truly great nation. We, as a nation, need to always insure we give people with disabilities their dignity and try to insure certain doors remain open for them, because when we do we all become better, richer human beings.
Thank you Special Olympics and our government who helps fund them! Let’s keep it that way for the man you helped my brother become and for all the future superstars with disabilities you are enriching today.