Who Influenced You?

Written by Sylvia Fuerstenberg, former executive director, The Arc of King County

Early life events can exert a powerful influence on both the pattern of brain architecture and behavioral development. We change — for better or worse. Now imagine if everyone in our society had early, positive experiences with people who have disabilities. How different the world would be!

For those of us who are related to someone with a disability, or grew up as friends with someone with Downs syndrome or autism, we know that our lives were impacted by that experience. At our recent luncheon, each of the speakers shared their experience of how being close to someone with a disability changed the direction of their lives in some way.

Sarah Cronk founded The Sparkle Effect because of her brother; Lauren Bertagna’s work as a young professional influenced her lifelong work in the disabilities field; Andi Smith, from the Governor’s office, spoke about her uncle; keynote speaker Omar Rivas told stories about several friends with disabilities that he cares deeply about; and of course, Dennis Bounds talked about his son.

For me, it was my cousin. He lived a full life, went to college, became a lawyer, and had a beautiful family. He also happened to have cerebral palsy. What matters to me was the full life, college, lawyer, and beautiful family part.

Today, thanks to greater inclusion at school, at work, and in our community, people with disabilities are making an even bigger impact on the lives of people around them. My kids have grown up knowing people with disabilities through my work and because of more inclusive classrooms and community activities.

When my son Sam went off to college, he pledged with a fraternity whose mission is to raise awareness about people with disabilities. Later this month, Sam will embark on a cross-country bicycle journey with several of his fraternity brothers to raise awareness and funds for people with disabilities. (Our board president Joshua Brothers also had this experience, and it influenced his decision to practice disability law!)

I am so proud that The Arc of King County is hosting a Friendship Visit at the PUSH America kick-off from Seattle to D.C. later this month. As I watch my son and his cohort of fraternity brothers push off from the Olympic Sculpture Park, I’ll be witnessing another generation of young men whose opinions, beliefs, and lives will be changed because of this experience.

Our advocacy work over the years has made a tangible difference in how people treat people with disabilities. As we continue our work, I hope you too will take a moment to realize how different the next generation will be because of the people they know, love, and grow up with today. Inclusion makes a difference.

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