Melanie Reach is a 24-year-old Shorewood woman who has cerebral palsy. After over 20 years living with the neurological disorder, she has a lot to share with the world about the condition, the importance of kids with special needs learning to advocate for themselves and helping parents to understand what their kids need.
Melanie wrote the special needs column for the September MetroParent while she was interning at St. Francis Children’s Center, gaining experience working with kids with special needs, and now she’s back at school pursuing her degree in rehabilitation services.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down to talk with Melanie. She shared her experiences and her advice for helping children with special needs figure out their futures, advice which is just as valuable for those without special needs.
|What is cerebral palsy and what are your symptoms?|
|Lots of people think cerebral palsy is a problem with the arms and legs, but it’s actually a disorder of the brain. Whatever part of the brain is damaged corresponds to the part of the body that you’ll have problems with. Everybody has a lot of the same types of issues, but there’s mild to severe.
I would say I’m probably on the high end of mild. I don’t really have speech problems, and I can walk with either crutches or one of my two walkers. I try to avoid tying shoes and using zippers. I have some issues with walking. I get tired easily, and fine motor things are hard.
|How do you advocate for yourself?|
|A lot of times people would assume that a person with cerebral palsy has intellectual disabilities. So my mom taught me when I was in high school how to go up to teachers and explain to them what my needs are, how I need to learn and how they can help me with it.
It’s not really difficult for me because I do talk so well. Now that I’m in college, if I don’t know a professor really well, it can be intimidating, but I have to tell them about my disability the first week of class. Afterwards, most of them are like, “Oh, thank you for telling me.”
And because I need to talk to them right away, it’s actually great because it’s like a doorway. Now they know who I am and it’s easier to have a relationship with the professors.
|How do you plan to use your degree in rehabilitation services?|
|I want to go into the technology side of things. There’s assistive technology for people with severe disabilities. Electrodes can be attached to them, and then by using their eyes, they can use computers, communicate, play video games and interact with the world.|
|What is the biggest misconception about people with disabilities?|
|I think people need to start seeing people with disabilities as less of a liability. We have so many pressures in society and people who tell us that we can’t do things, so we’re very motivated because we have a sense of needing to prove people wrong and show them what we can do. If a person is qualified, let them try it out and show you they can be a dedicated employee.|
|What is your best advice for adults who are trying to help children figure out their future?|
|When a kid tells you what they want to do, don’t assume it’s not achievable just because it seems like a crazy dream. If the kid says something like he wants to be president, ask him, “What does being president mean to you?” Maybe it’s something as simple as wanting time every morning by himself to read the newspaper. You can find a career where you can do that. Until a person has a career, he doesn’t really know the qualities of a job. So the question should be more what you want out of a job than the job you want.|
Source MetroParent Magazine, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel