Bridget Advocates for Inclusion

This week’s blog post was written by Bridget Brown from University of Illinois Chicago, UIC Co-Op Program. Bridget is a 2022 Think College Policy Advocate (you can learn more in this article). She traveled to Washington, DC with Jordyn Jensen (also from UIC Co-Op Program) to advocate for more inclusive opportunities in education, employment, and the community for people with intellectual disability. Bridget and Jordyn had meetings with staff from the offices of Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL), Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), as well as with the lead Democratic and Republican staff people on our issues with the House Education and Labor Committee. During those meetings, Bridget shared the following:

My name is Bridget Brown; this is my friend, Jordyn.

I am an actress, an inclusion activist, and a young woman with Down syndrome.

Today I am here to tell you about the importance of inclusion. I am also here to tell you about issues related to community living, education, and employment for people with disabilities.

Let me take you back to the 1960’s. During that time, if you were born with a disability the doctors recommended for parents to put their children into institutions. My 2nd cousin, Marie, who was born with Down syndrome was one of those children. Her whole life was shattered because of that. She ended up passing away in the institution at a young age.

20 years later in 1986, I was born with Down syndrome and the doctors told my parents to bring me home. I then grew up with my family and with my friends. I have had so many successes because of being included my whole life.

Inclusion in education has changed my life. When I started going to school, my mother had a vision for me to be included in my community and in school. She had to fight and advocate for me to be included. Because of advocating for inclusion, I learned in general education classes with my peers without disabilities from preschool up until now, in higher education.

I am now a student at the University of Illinois Chicago, UIC for short. I am in the Co-Op Program, which is a college program for people with intellectual disabilities. It is a fully inclusive program. This means that I take classes for college credit with other undergraduate students. I have the opportunity to study things I am interested in, like arts, disability studies, and policy. The Co-Op Program is career focused. This Fall, I have a paid internship in the UIC nursing lab. We need more college programs like the Co-Op program for people with disabilities. Another big part of my life is that I am a co-founder of an organization called Butterflies for Change with my mother. In junior high school, I started presenting my person-centered plan, called PCP for short. It became a way for me to use my voice to tell my story and design MY LIFE. I found my gift through this process and ever since, I have been teaching people with I/DD [intellectual and/or developmental disabilities] to use PCP to design their own lives. With our organization, my mom and I also travel around the state of Illinois and the country to advocate for inclusion.

I get paid for doing a job that I love doing. This is not the case for most people with disabilities, especially people with I/DD. Many people with I/DD work in sheltered workshops and are paid subminimum wage. This means they are paid LESS THAN minimum wage. Sometimes pennies. This is wrong.

Unfortunately, my story is rare. Still to this day, people with disabilities are segregated. They are forced to live in large institutions because their parents are given no other option. Many people with disabilities, especially I/DD, are still segregated in their schools and learn in contained classrooms.

Everyone deserves the right to live in their home and in their community where they belong.
Everyone deserves the right to learn in a FULLY inclusive environment.
Everyone deserves the right to access higher education and be a lifelong learner.
Everyone deserves the right to have a career and be employed and be paid a competitive salary.

Why are so many people with disabilities still not afforded these rights? We need to change this and advocate for inclusion.

My parents have a motto: We never segregate the people that we value. Because people with disabilities are valued, they should be part of the community, be included in school, and have other equal opportunities.