Stop Whispering and Start Talking with Kids about Disabilities

Chatting with Nolan Photo Credit: Seth Stratton

Chatting with Nolan Photo Credit: Seth Stratton

Since my writing focuses on athletes who play sports in adaptive ways, many parents and friends have been asking me about how to talk with kids about disabilities. I am no expert, but I do have experience from discussing differences with my students in the classroom or at home with my own children. I have not handled all of these situations perfectly, but I have learned that there are some strategies to make the conversations more meaningful and authentic. Here are my top 5 tips for talking with kids about disabilities and exceptionalities, and I included some of my own real life “mom” scenarios to help.

1. Speak up. There is no need to whisper. When we lower our voices and answer their questions about a disabled person in a whisper, we are implicitly telling our children this topic is not appropriate to talk about and we have to be careful with what we say. Instead, we need to speak up.

Caitlin: “Mom, why is that boy in the family locker room with us? He is in a wheelchair.”

Me: “He probably plays a sport. Why don’t you ask him what he plays?” 

Caitlin & Me: “Excuse me, we were wondering… what sports do you play?”

Little Boy (with a grin): “I ski, swim, and play basketball.” 

2. Follow their lead, but guide their path. Children are curious observers of their world and they want to share their observations. When they share their observations, they do it from their own perspective and with their own vocabulary. We need to acknowledge their observations and help them develop their language for clarity and to promote inclusion.

Little Girl with Braces Photo Credit:

Little Girl with Braces Photo Credit:

Caitlin (while pointing): “That little girl is wearing braces.”

Me: “Yes, she has braces on her legs.”

Caitlin: “She walks funny.”

Me (taking a deep breathe): “Her legs work differently. There are lots of ways to move, and she is headed to the library just like us.”

3. Encourage questions and reflection. Children have questions, lots of them. You don’t have to know all of the answers. You just need to be a curious listener and encourage them to reflect critically.

Man with Service Dog Photo Credit:

Man with Service Dog Photo Credit:

Nolan (my rule following and anxious child): “Why does that man have a dog in here? Isn’t that against the rules?

Me: “From the harness and vest the dog is wearing, it looks like he is a service dog. Do you know how a service dog helps people?”

4. Be curious and learn more. Differences are beautiful. Disabilities and exceptionalities give all of us an opportunity to learn more about each other and how many different ways there are to do every day tasks. It is okay to ask questions. Investigate the world with your children and learn more about it.

At an exhibit hosted by photographers with varying disabilities, Nolan asks, “Mom, he has no arms. How can he take pictures?”

Me: “I don’t know. We should ask.” 

Nolan tentatively follows me over to the young man in a power chair.

Me (putting my arm around Nolan): “We love the photo you took of this young girl. We were wondering how you took it.”

Photographer: “That is my niece. I love taking pictures of her. I mount the camera to the end of my chair. Then, I use my baseball cap with this wand attached to the brim and a stylus attached at the end to focus and snap the shutter. I am really working on how I use the light in my photos.”

Nolan (moving away from me and pointing at a photo): “Yeah, I like the shadows in the picture of the telephone lines.”

Photographer: “Yes, it’s one of my favorites.”

5. My favorite response to any questions kids have that I don’t know how to answer: “That is a great question. Let’s research it.” ChoosingQuestion_alexsl

AN UPDATE: This post was originally written over 5 years ago before we adopted our youngest son, Ian, who has physical disability. Prior to Ian joining our family, I was only familiar with navigating the world with a child who had an invisible disability. With time and more experience, I would like to add two more tips-one on language and one on asking questions.

  1. Disabled and disability are neutral terms that do not have a negative or positive value. These terms can help one see the whole person and his/her experience in the world. When my child refers to himself as disabled, it gives him a voice and empowers him to identify barriers that he is experiencing.
  2. I still encourage asking questions. I especially appreciate curious children because I have three of them with very inquisitive minds. However, don’t expect an answer when you ask a question that choice belongs to the disabled individual.

Finally, here is a great article by Godrey Nanyenya if you are looking for more resources.

My “I’m Not Going Back-to-School” To Do List


School Hallway

Everyone is back to school, and I’m not.

I figured it out and every September for 37 years I have been walking in a school door and down glistening hallways to either attend or teach a class. Do I miss it? No. Didn’t I love getting new textbooks to read or greeting my new students with a welcoming smile? Yes. I loved every minute. I will always love the smell of a new book and how the spine creaks when you open it for the first time. I will miss offering my hand to students and watching smiles slowly emerge across their faces. However, now I am doing what all of my teachers and former students taught me to do throughout those 37 years. This September, I am believing in myself and following my heart. So instead of putting on a new outfit and stepping out the door, I am home alone, writing and…loving it 😉

But…the student-teacher in me is a difficult beast to tame. Therefore, I did buy colorful new pens and made plans for the fall that include offering some new features with the blog. Don’t worry, I will continue to interview amazing athletes and share their sports stories. Additionally, I will also continue to share some of my own musings on adaptive sports, change, teaching, writing and my kids.

What’s new? I will share resources like books, films, organizations or other noteworthy items. I will also offer more perspective on the world of adaptive sports by interviewing family members and coaches who support athletes with exceptionalities. My hope is to create a site where athletes are celebrated, families are supported and readers are empowered.

So here is my “I’m Not Going Back-To-School To Do List”:

Endless Abilities

Endless Abilities Photo Credit:

1. Watch the film Endless Abilities by Windy Films. I LOVE this film! I mean I REALLY LOVE this film! The documentary focuses on the journey of Zachary Bastain and his three friends who travel cross country meeting athletes who play adaptive sports. The people they meet are not elite athletes, but individuals who have found meaning in adaptive sports. What I admire about the film is how honestly Zack tells his story. His genuine desire to share adaptive sports with the world is evident in every scene. Also, the music is fantastic. The only request that Nolan, Caitlin and I have is that Zack and his friends make another film titled More Endless Abilities and include Team Possible members- Nick Springer, Kanya SesserCortney Jordan and Sydney Collier.

Out of My Mind

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper Photo Credit:

2. Read Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. This book is a MUST read for all teachers. I hope when you read it that you get out-of-your-mind mad at some of the teachers in the book because all they can see is what a student can’t do based on her disability. Then, I hope you shed tears when eleven year-old Melody uses a communication device for the first time and she is able to share her thoughts with the world. Next, I hope you cheer, laugh and shout, “I knew she could do it!” when she competes to join the school quiz team. Finally, I hope you read Out of My Mind to your students, your children and share it with your friends. As Malala Yousafzai reminds us, “One child. One teacher. One book. One pen can change the world. ”

If you’re still not sure, I did recommend this to one of my absolutely fantastic Springfield College students, Abbie King, to read over the summer with her sister, Maggie. Here is what she had to say about the book:

Abbie & Maggie King

Abbie & Maggie King Photo Credit: Abbie King

Mags and I really enjoyed reading Out of My Mind this summer. She goes to the school that I work at in the summer so we would listen to it on our drives to and from work. When we finished the book she typed on her communication device “it was happy happy love.” She really seemed to enjoy the book…I felt like Maggie was really able to connect with this book since she had very similar abilities to Melody. Growing up she would always scream and cry over the simplest of things since she had no reliable way to tell us what she was thinking. Once she got her first communication device, she became a whole new person. It was as if she was just trapped inside her mind. Now, she is a sassy, independent, brave and fearless young lady.

3. Ask for help. The fall is overwhelming and busy for everyone. I am working on asking for help when I begin to flounder instead of waiting until I am over my head.  I will start now by asking you to share this blog with a friend on FaceBook, Twitter or via email. I would also love help finding resources. Please email me ( your favorite websites, books, films, organizations, etc. Really, I need your help and want to share your stories. 

Believe in the Possible!


What Change Is in Your Pockets?


Piles of Coins Photo Credit:

Growing up, my dad would collect his change and encourage my sister and me to do the same. Every six months or so, we would all sit down in the kitchen and pour our collections on to the center of the table.  We would then each go about sorting the change into piles- pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. Once we completed the sorting, we began creating piles of ten around the table with each type of coin- 10 pennies, 10 nickels, 10 dimes, and 10 quarters. Eventually, the kitchen table would be lined with delicate towers of coins, and we were ready for the next challenging step of sliding the piles into the small six-inch paper sleeves from the bank. Once a sleeve was filled with the correct amount, we would pinch the ends and fold them down to make a solid heavy tube of money. Finally, the most exciting step was counting up the tubes to find out the total amount of money we had collected. I was always amazed at how much money we had in the end. Of course, there was usually some loose change left over that my dad would have us go back and put back into our piggy banks reassuring us that we could look forward to the process occurring again.

When I decided to make a career shift and focus on writing in an attempt to create change with my words, I had no idea how much it would be like collecting coins with my sister and dad. Although it is much less tangible than a pile of coins, creating change is about small moments that may seem insignificant like a penny in your pocket, but when piled up and tallied with others they surprise you with their worth. Therefore, I thought I would share with you the small pocket of change that I have collected over the past month. 

Ocean Park Memorial Library

Ocean Park Memorial Library Photo Credit: Jon Hannaford

Change #1: As we walked across the street to enter one of our favorite summer time spots, the public library in Ocean Park, Maine, Nolan announced with excitement, “Mom, do you see the new accessible ramp to the library? Now, everyone can get books.”

Coach Hooper Photo Credit: PBS Kids

Coach Hooper Photo Credit: PBS Kids

Change #2: During a lazy summer morning, Caitlin and Nolan were cuddled on the couch watching their favorite shows on PBS when Coach Hooper appeared encouraging viewers to get up and move. Ignoring his instructions to stand and reach up high, the kids continued to stay huddled on the couch until Coach Hooper was done. Then, Caitlin popped up and turned away from the television. Concerned, she said, “Mom, they didn’t show any kids who move in different ways. They should include kids who move differently.”

Nolan and Caitlin talking about an upcoming interview. Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

Nolan and Caitlin talking about an upcoming interview. Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

Change #3: I was sitting at my desk writing when I was interrupted for the third time in five minutes by Nolan. Annoyed, I explained to him I was writing and I needed to focus for the next 30 minutes to finish up an interview. He responded, “Mom, I want you to be successful. This is really important work. I will play with Caitlin and make sure you get that story done.”

Mosaic Bowl on My Desk Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

Mosaic Bowl on My Desk Photo Credit: Jen Stratton

Change #4: “It’s one of a kind,” my colleague proudly stated as I carefully unwrapped the glass bowl she gave me for a parting gift. “It is a mosaic,” she explained further. Shaped from glass and mosaic tiles, the colorful bowl carries a hidden message. It is a reminder of a conversation we had a few years ago, and one I have had with many of my former students. It is a reminder that we are not seeking a melting pot, but instead we want to celebrate what makes all of us unique to create something that would be not be possible alone- a beautiful mosaic.

The Other Side of the Sky by Ahmedi Photo Credit:

The Other Side of the Sky by Ahmedi Photo Credit:

Change #5: This excerpt is from an email sent by a former student… I am reading the book you lent me, The Other Side of the Sky and on page 78, I read this passage and loved it. It is such a strong passage for me…It brought to mind Team Possible, and all the stories you have written about, and all the others to come.

“I didn’t want pity. If less is expected of me, less was thought of me. That’s how I saw it. I refused to concede that stepping on a land mine had made me any less than I used to be or could be. I refuse to scale back my ambitions or reduce my expectations of myself.” 

Coin in Hand Photo Credit:

Coin in Hand Photo Credit:

I still have some change to share. However, I will keep them in my pocket for now. They will encourage me to keep collecting and remind me that small change can be significant. So… what change is in your pockets?

5 Lessons My Students (K-Ph.D.) Taught Me About Teaching and Life

I wrote this post nearly 5 years ago and have since stepped back into the college classroom because I missed the magic of learning with my students. However, every word of it remains true today. Thank you again to all of my amazing students who have taught me so much about teaching and life!

Dear Students,

As I step out of the classroom, I would like to thank all of you for teaching me so many important lessons. Although you taught me many more than just five lessons, these are the lessons that have had the greatest impact in my teaching and my life.



It is hard to listen. It took me lots of practice, but you were patient. Fortunately, you taught me to listen first with my ears. Then, I could hear your words. Next, you taught me to listen with my eyes, so I could see the relationship between your words and your actions. Finally, when I was ready, you taught me how to listen with my heart, so I could feel your words. And when I learned to listen with my ears, eyes and heart, I then truly understood you.


Looking critically in the mirror is not always fun, but it is necessary when developing your teaching. As I reflected on my craft, I began to realize that it was in the small details of day that I needed to change. First, I learned to greet each of you and let you know that your learning mattered. This simple routine built a foundation for our relationship and said to you, “I care about you and want you to be successful.” Then, I learned that my language needed to be explicit and concise. So, I stopped saying, “Please take your seat” and starting saying, “It’s time to sit and get ready to learn.” Through conscious efforts, my language slowly became more inclusive and less exclusive. I stopped saying, “parents” and instead referred to “caregivers.” It was a simple shift. However, it gave recognition to the multiple family members and friends were involved in supporting your education. “Homework” became “out of school assignments” because I understood that some of you completed your work at centers or in libraries, not home. It was in the details of simple actions and my language that my teaching evolved, and I know you appreciated my efforts.



I don’t like to make mistakes, but I do. I have made plenty and learned from most of them. Fortunately, you were always so kind and forgiving when I made big mistakes in front of the class. You also taught me that laughing at myself when I faltered was a good idea. What else do you do when you rip your pants during field day and have to hold them together with duct tape and binder clips? Yes, teaching, learning and living life are all risky business; it is important to have a sense of humor.



This lesson still terrifies me. Teaching from and with your heart makes you vulnerable. I don’t like to feel vulnerable; it’s scary. However, when you teach from and with your heart, the connections you make with students are steadfast and comforting like a warm quilt. What does it look like to teach from the heart? It means you read aloud Patricia Polacco’s Thank you, Mr. Falker with tears streaming down your face because you feel so deeply the pain of Trisha’s struggle to read. It means you eat lunch with your students and honestly discuss what superpowers you would like to have in the future. It means you search and find ways to give all students a voice, even if they never speak. When you teach from and with your heart, you stand beside your students letting them lean on you, you sit with your students letting them whisper their fears in your ears, and you hold them tight in your arms when the world seems too much to bear.


Globe w Hands

Okay, I love this lesson! Every day in your own learning, you would model for me the benefits of taking risks. As role models, you forced me to step outside of my comfort zone. I started in safe places like learning and integrating new technologies into my teaching. But I grew and so did the challenges. I started to look beyond the possible and started to challenge what seemed impossible. With your encouragement, I started to do more and become more. This lesson created my desire to write books for children that celebrate all abilities. When I shared my decision and thoughts about writing with you, you didn’t respond with looks of doubts or questions. Instead, you cheered me on and said, “I am so happy. Now, the world will be your classroom.”

Thank you for teaching me these important life lessons. Each one of you has been a part of this journey, and I am deeply grateful for all the lessons we have learned together. Since the only gift I can give you now is the written word, I will share a poem by Shel Silverstein that I memorized in fifth grade. I’ve been carrying it around in my heart for years. I still repeat it to myself in moments of doubt. Here it is…

Listen to the Mustn'ts

So listen and remember, “Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.” I wish you all the best life has to offer!

Believe in the possible,


(A.K.A: Ms. Leary, Ms. Stratton, Professor Stratton & Dr. J)

On Being the Change: Step 2- Read More. Look in the Mirror Less.

Step 2: Read More. Look in the Mirror Less.

Reading is good for you; it is exercise for the brain and food for the soul. In fact, reading has documented health benefits like reducing stress, improving memory and increasing focus. It also has social-emotional benefits and can help us connect to others, develop empathy and understand differences.

There are lots of ways to read. You can read a novel curled up in your favorite chair with the sun shining over your shoulder. You can read a magazine in the doctor’s office and learn 25 healthy ways to cook chicken while you wait. Or, like Dr. Seuss, you can read with your eyes shut (fun, but not recommended). My favorite way to read is snuggled in bed with my children. We read anything from adventurous chapter books to picture book classics to maps of museums we recently have visited.


After years of sharing children’s books with young readers, I have noticed that as much as I love the wild rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are or other “classics”, these stories do not generate nearly as much conversation as when I read books that offer new perspectives. For example, my children and I can identify with not wanting to try a new food that appears different like “green eggs and ham”, but then being surprised at how good it actually tastes and admitting that they would eat it here, there or anywhere. Since this experience is familiar to us and mirrors our own lives, it does not generate lots of questions. However, when we read in the world atlas that South Africa has eleven official languages, we begin to wonder: What language do they use for street signs? What languages are taught in school?

These wonderings about the world have led me to look for windows in books. What do I mean? Well, many of the books we read are like mirrors; they reflect our own lives. However, when we read books with windows they give us a glimpse into a new world. They help us look at our lives and every day occurrences from new perspectives.

IMPORTANT NOTE: There may be moments for some of us when there are no mirrors. We can’t find books on the shelves that reflect our lives, and we realize our story seems to be missing. This happened to me when I stood in the library looking for picture book biographies that represented my family and I could only find two that focused on the abilities of individuals with exceptionalities. When we find this gap and are left searching, it is time to pick up the pen and tell our story. We need diverse books.


With my son, Nolan, acting as editor of this post, we have included a few of our favorite books that create windows and conversations:

 You And Me Together    Cool Drink of Water

How do you spend time as a family? How do you drink your water? Do people around the world spend time with family or drink water the same way? In Barbara Kerley’s You and Me Together: Moms, Dads & Kids Around the World and A Cool Drink of Water, readers get to peer through windows around the world. Stunning photographs in both books show lives very familiar and very different from your own. The images are woven together with repetitive and lyrical phrases that connect you to each image and humanity.

 Emmanuels Dream

“He proved that one leg is enough to do great things- and one person is enough to change the world.”

Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls is a recommended read aloud for every home and classroom. This picture book biography is about, Emmanuel, a young man from Ghana who is born with a limb difference. In the story, Emmanuel embraces his exceptionality and pushes past limitations others try to impose on him. With a vision for a better world and a bike from the Challenged Athletes Foundation, Emmanuel sets off on a journey across Ghana to raise awareness and hope for people with disabilities. Emmanuel’s story inspires and empowers readers to believe that “one person can change the world.”

Finally, everyone should read I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai. And now, with her story available in both picture book and chapter book formats, everyone can hear this powerful story of how one girl challenged systems of oppression and changed the word.


So for step two in being a part of the change, I will READ. I will look in the mirror less and try to find windows by reading more diverse books that challenge my perspectives and help me grow. And if at times I don’t find a mirror, I will WRITE because “ONE BOOK, ONE PEN CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.”

Believe in the Possible,


On Being the Change- Step 1: Choose Your Words Carefully

Step 1: Choose your words carefully.

Words are powerful. Words can evoke strong emotions. When they are selected carefully, they can educate, empower and inspire. They can be used to change the ideas of one individual or to generate a movement among thousands.

When words simply spill out into the world, they can lead to misunderstandings and misconceptions. Misplaced words can create pain and disappointment. They can even build barriers and breakdown the human spirit. How do you plan to use your words?

I plan to use my words to make the world a better place. I will use my words to embrace others and unleash their potential. Here are a few ways I plan to use my words to be the change I wish to see in the world:

1. Disabled to Exceptional. My son, Nolan, was born prematurely. From his very first moments on Earth, he struggled to coordinate the instinctual skills of sucking, swallowing and breathing. These seemingly innate actions needed to be coached. Actually, he was delayed in learning all the early developmental skills like crawling, walking and talking and required hours of intensive therapy. Now, at the age of ten, he has mastered most developmentally appropriate skills. Writing remains a laborious task, and tying his shoes seems to elude him. Fortunately, technology can replace the pencil, and Velcro can secure his shoes.

After nearly a decade of triumphs and tribulations, we have come to realize that Nolan’s brain is wired differently. According to the CDC, he is “disabled.” However, this label seems amazingly inaccurate for my son. The word “disabled” unfairly places limitations on Nolan’s abilities and potential. It creates barriers and makes me want to shout, “He can do ANYTHING!” His learning differences are beautiful. His unique brain deserves to be celebrated.

When I talk about Nolan and the challenges he faces, I choose my words carefully. I use them to empower and unleash all of the potential in my son. This is why I tell the world: “MY SON IS EXCEPTIONAL!” DSC_0541    And then I smile, knowing I have used my words to make the world a better place for him.

2. Handicap to Accessible. I recently learned about 3ELOVE ( ). It is the brainchild of Annie and Stevie Hopkins, two exceptional individuals, who are re-conceptualizing the International Sign of Accessibility that was originally developed in 1968. The redesigned symbol is being used to EMBRACE, EDUCATE and EMPOWER the world about individuals with exceptionalities.

Accessiblity Sign3e_love_embrace_educate_empower_sticker__80183

My children and I immediately connected with the 3ELOVE message and bought various 3ELOVE products including t-shirts. When the t-shirts arrived, the kids couldn’t wait to wear them.

Caitlin proudly wore hers to a birthday party, but I wasn’t totally prepared for what happened. On the ride home from the party, she told me a peer asked her, “Why are you wearing a handicap sign?” I asked her how she responded and, un-phased by the incident, she stated, “I told her it was my wheelchair rugby shirt.” Nolan reported a similar experience at school, but his response to the question was, “It’s about 3ELOVE.”

I then realized I hadn’t prepared my children with the accurate words. So, I explained to them that when we see this symbol posted in parking lots, on bathroom doors or on buttons near doorways that it means “accessible.” The symbol is there to let everyone know that if you need more space to move or if you need the door to open for you, it is available. It does not mean “handicap.” When we choose our words carefully, this International Symbol of Accessibility means: “All are welcome here.


3. Impossible to Possible. In the winter of 2010 when I was teaching full time at the college-level, working on my doctoral degree and raising two children under the age of five, I was overwhelmed. I was considering giving up on my studies. All I could see were barriers. Then, I made a critical decision. I got rid of the word “impossible.” By removing that word from my vocabulary, I was forced to think of everything including balancing work, studies and family life as “possible.” Ridding myself of this word shifted my thinking. This resulted in me finding new ways to make it all work. Some solutions were simple like asking family members to babysit more. Some solutions were hard like getting up at 4:30 a.m. to write papers. But, it all became possible. And finally, in May 2013, I received my doctoral degree and my children cheered for me as I proudly walked across the stage.

This idea of possible versus impossible has became even more evident during my interviews with Nick Springer. Becoming a quad amputee at the age of 14, Nick embodies all things possible. Despite his amputations, he can drive, send funny text messages, travel around the world and play a very mean game of wheelchair rugby.

Nick Blocking

In fact, the more I research athletes who play adaptive sports, the more I realize that anything is possible. For example, Mark Stutzman, member of the US Archery team and 2012 silver medalist in the London Paralympic Games, can shoot a bow with incredible precision using his foot and mouth. He also hunts and raises his three boys with his wife, Amber.


When we choose our words carefully, we can create change in ourselves and in others. What does this change look like or sound like? It appears in simple moments. Here is what happened recently in my home when my daughter was completing her math homework:

Mommy, the problem says Brendan has two bandages on his fingers and they want to know how many fingers don’t have bandages. I think they want me to write 10-2=8, but it depends. It could be 5-2=3 or something else. It all depends.”

With carefully chosen words, one person can create change. It’s time for you to decide, “What will I do with my words today? Will I break down or build up?”

I plan to choose my words carefully and to use them to educate, empower and inspire change.


Believe in the Possible,


Be the change you wish to see in the world. –Gandhi

This is my mantra. This is the foundation from which I teach my students and my children. However, change is challenging, uncomfortable and at times frightening. But is the challenge real or perceived? Is the discomfort physical or mental? And is my fear grounded in fact or fiction?

For me the challenge is often perceived. The discomfort is usually only mental, and the fear is grounded in more fiction than facts. Therefore, I force myself to move forward outside my comfort zone into the realm of “CHANGE.”

Unexpectedly, the push to change my career path came to me on my short drive to work this fall. It wasn’t a day that I didn’t want to teach. In fact, I was excited to share my love of teaching reading with a fantastic group of pre-service teachers. They were discovering for themselves that supporting early readers is the merge of magic and science.

So what happened? It was an epiphany of sorts resulting from critical reflection on an incident that occurred last year when my daughter, Caitlin, was in kindergarten.

It started over dinner when she was deciding what to bring in for “show and tell” at school. Remembering her recent visit to my office, she asked if she could bring in the poster of her cousin that hung on my door. Excited about her decision, I agreed and told her that I would get it for her the next day.

The following afternoon, I carefully pulled the tape from the back and rolled up the poster of Nick in his Team USA uniform with gold and silver medals hanging around his neck. I, then, tucked it into my bag and headed home. That night after dinner, the kids argued which one of them would get to share the poster first. My son, Nolan, who was in third grade, stated that he wanted to take the poster to school on Thursday because Caitlin did not have “show and tell” until Friday. This seemed a reasonable request, but I said I would email their teachers and wait to hear back from them.

I sent their teachers links to articles about Nick’s accomplishments and video clips from the Beijing Games, along with a photo of the poster. Nolan’s teacher responded that night saying she had shared Nick’s story with her family and how they were all inspired by his success. Yes, like many world-class athletes, his story is inspiring.

I didn’t hear from Caitlin’s teacher until the next morning. She explained that she had forwarded my email to the principal and that she was concerned the poster would “scare” the children. I was appalled.

Nick Springer is Caitlin’s cousin. Nick Springer is a gold and silver medalist in the 2008 and 2012 Paralympics. Nick Springer is a world-class athlete who plays wheelchair rugby. Nick Springer is a survivor of meningococcal meningitis. Nick Springer is a quad amputee.


Unfortunately, the only label her teacher could see was the last, and she found it frightening.

The next day, I received a call at work from the school principal. Here is a bit from my side of the conversation:

“It is not if Caitlin will share the poster, but when.”

“How can we be okay with sharing images like Captain Hook with young children, yet we are afraid to share a photo of someone who represented our country in the Paralympics?”

“I find it more frightening that we have an educator who feels unprepared to embrace diversity in her classroom. If she can’t handle this conversation, what other conversations are not occurring?”

On the following Friday, with the support and guidance from the principal, Caitlin shared the poster. And, how did her classmates react? They thought her cousin was totally awesome!

Proud Cousin

However, I never found peace with the situation. Well… until this fateful car ride to work.

A book. A tool. That was it, I would write a children’s book celebrating Nick’s story, and it would be a tool for Caitlin’s former teacher and every educator to discuss, embrace and celebrate differences.

Thus, my journey began and I started researching picture book biographies. Over the past three months, I have read 44 picture book biographies. So far, only two have featured a person with a disability, Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull (1996) and A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant (2014). Of the 44 picture book biographies, 10 have been about athletes, but not one has featured a Paralympian. According to the CDC and the 2010 census, approximately 20% of adults in the US are disabled. Yet, individuals with disabilities remain a vastly underrepresented group in children’s literature.

My plan is to change this. I will be the “CHANGE” (or at least be a part of it). I will research and write the amazing life stories of people with disabilities or more accurately stated, “people with exceptionalities.” Yes, I will write stories of people who lead exceptional lives that educate, empower and inspire others.

If you have an amazing story to tell, please share it. Let’s be the change we wish to see in the world.

Believe in the possible,