“I’m a snowman, Torrie, and I. Am. Melting.” As I watched Devon, a 6th grader with a deep love of Broadway musical soundtracks, lying on a stage in a fully padded snowman costume during the middle of a performance on a warm San Diego evening, I could only laugh. He was surrounded by a cadre of children who were singing and dancing to “Frosty the Snowman” and they all happily stepped over him as he lie flat on the stage. Mind you, this was not a choreographed part of the routine. Devon, who happened to have Down syndrome, had begged to be “Frosty” in the performance, and the costume shop at the youth theater where I taught Devon and hundreds of other kids had hooked him up with a pretty incredible costume. He loved it… for about 15 minutes. However, as the reality of jumping around wearing, basically, a sleeping bag on a warm day under hot theater lights set in, he was over it. His way of showing me was to actually melt to the ground during the performance while I whispered to him from the wings, “Devon, get up! Get up!” His “melting” performance was just another reminder to me of how smart, funny and quick-witted this boy was.
Devon was my introduction to the world of inclusion, and I will never stop being grateful to him and his mom for giving me the opportunity to be his theater teacher.
Before Devon’s mom, Linda, called me to sign her son up for an acting class, I had no experience with individuals with disabilities. When she told me that her son had Down syndrome, I had almost no idea what that meant. I remember being afraid. I was afraid of failing him as a teacher and afraid of not knowing what do. I told Linda, “I want your son to have a great experience in my class, but I have to admit that I don’t know anything about Down syndrome. I am going to need your help.” She said, “I will definitely help, and there is a small non-profit in town called Kids Included Together, and if you call them, I know they will help, too.”
I did not know it at the time, but that phone call would change my life. Working with Devon and his mom forever changed the way I see the world. They taught me to see people for their strengths and abilities, and not their perceived deficits. I learned to check my own assumptions and to try, in every way possible, to overcome my biases. I learned that by making creative accommodations, my teaching became more responsive for every student, not just those with diagnosed disabilities. If it weren’t for Devon, I would not get to fulfill my purpose every single day working for Kids Included Together.
As we celebrate the 10th Anniversary of World Down Syndrome Day, I want to formally thank Devon, Linda, and the many children and families that I have had the pleasure of learning from since my journey to inclusion began almost twenty years ago. To me, inclusion is the promise of a better world, where children like Devon are respected, welcomed and supported in their communities – even on stages melting away in sweat-inducing snowman costumes, if that’s what they want to do.
— Written by Torrie Dunlap, CEO of Kids Included Together
Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.