Disability Pride Month KIT Spotlight – Shonna Riggs, Inclusion Support Specialist

July is Disability Pride Month and commemorates the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in July 1990. It is a time to honor those with disabilities and reject the shame and ableism many have experienced. It’s a time to celebrate each person’s uniqueness and to encourage those with disabilities to show up, just as they are, unapologetically. We look to celebrate Disability Pride Month by sharing a personal experience from KIT Inclusion Support Specialist, Shonna Riggs.

Shonna has a passion for advocating for families to ensure children with disabilities receive resources and support needed to be fully included. She joined the KIT team in August of 2021 as an Inclusion Support Specialist, where she helps drive the KIT mission of providing opportunities to fully include everyone, regardless of their unique challenges.

She received her MSW from Brescia University in Kentucky and is a Certified Social Worker and military veteran with more than 10 years of experience working with families and youths with disabilities. Outside of her work with KIT, Shonna is a volunteer in her community, providing case management for youth and young adults struggling to find mental health support.

“The path to inclusion begins with acceptance, tolerance, and understanding the unique needs that are shared beliefs, proving we are more alike than we are different.”

What Disability Pride Month Means to Me – Words from Shonna

I am a mother. I am a caregiver. Caring for a young adult with special needs is hard work. My daughter was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when she was 3 years old. This challenge is a large part of my entire life, as she continues to get older, her need for support changes but will remain for the rest of our lives.Shonna Riggs wearing a black blouse with a flower pattern.

The day my daughter was diagnosed, I remember sitting before a panel of seven professionals. The team included everyone from medical doctors to speech therapists. They said the words: “Your daughter is Autistic, with global developmental delays.” I don’t think I fully understood what the doctors meant, nor what this meant for our lives. More times than not I’m unsure I understand it completely, even today. I work very hard to embrace her abilities and not her delays.

After receiving this life altering news, I turned to my mother, a long-time educator, who was with me that day and tearfully asked, “What do I do now?” She replied, “Take my beautiful grand baby home, and teach her just like you would any other child.” I am proud that this opened the gateway for me to practice inclusion.

As I watched my baby girl grow and learn, I was amazed at how well she navigated life with familial supports in place.

“My daughter has shown me the meaning of courage, as she tries to make her way through a world void of many inclusive practices.”

Advocacy agencies such as Families Helping Families, Agenda for Children, and Early Steps, would offer sprinkles of hope and light.

The services were rich with resources but were limited for a direct cure. I was looking for the anecdote, the magic potion, that would take away this life changing diagnosis, only to discover it did not exist. I grew through the five stages of grief, ultimately accepting that this life was ours to embrace for better or worse.

“It was up to me to decide how to fully support this brave and beautiful little girl and nurture and support her through the many challenges that lie ahead.”

Advocating for her became my passion, mission and now my life’s work through Kids Included Together.

“As we celebrate disability pride month, I recognize the joy and happiness she brings to my life, even though as her full-time caregiver, I become tired, overwhelmed, and scared.”

There is always the moment where I wonder, am I doing enough? Is this the right decision for her? It happened recently when she had to have surgery. As I watched her being wheeled away, to the surgical suite, covered with her Scooby Doo blanket – something familiar from home, not being able to hold her hand or be her voice among the sea of unfamiliar faces, was incredibly hard. The only thing that came to mind was what an amazingly brave young lady, I have been blessed with.

“Bye Mama, Bye, Bye,” she smiled, laughed, and waved as she was being whisked away. She’s always enjoying this feeling of the ride. Not fully understanding what was about to happen to her, or what the outcome of her procedure would be, but smiling and happy, I watched her embark on another journey.  I am proud that her disability helps her to remain brave and fearless.

I encourage families to take notice of the beauty that can be discovered along this journey. My daughter did not have the benefit of Applied Behavioral Analysis services, nor therapeutic supports through early learning childcare to help with her many varied complex needs.

As a single mother, navigating our lives, I did thrifty things to help her learn early. I cut out letters with construction paper and used them to teach her the alphabet. I paired this activity with the alphabet song. I remember the joy of hearing her sing the alphabet song for the first time and it still brings tears to my eyes.

For early inclusion practices, on my own, I took her to the park, and she made new friends, and when curious little ones, would ask, “What’s her name?” I was amazed and proud that no one left her out and wanted to swing and slide with her.

“The other children simply wanted to know who they were playing with, not what was wrong with her, or why she did not speak like they did. This small interaction made me realize the world would welcome her, no matter how challenging things appeared. It made me advocate for her with confidence.”

I carried so many hopes and dreams for my daughter. And I still do, only they look different. I hope that she knows that she is a shining example of strength and bravery. I dream that the world will see a young lady, who still wants to play, enjoy that peaceful place of innocence, and even when things are hard and unfamiliar, she still smiles. I am proud to celebrate Disability Pride Month by thanking my beautiful daughter for reminding me to laugh often, sing loud, and enjoy the ride even when things we cannot change seem too hard.