Who could ever have imagined this moment, given the 50 year struggle to assist people with intellectual disability to take their place at the community table in the United States?
It is May 7th, 2016, at the Millersville University’s graduation ceremony. It is time for the “Student Address”, delivered each year by a graduating student who exemplifies the university experience. Daniel Castellanos, university student, soon-to-be graduate, theater major, actor, campus activist, and now, commencement speaker, walks to the podium with an easy confidence. He is the very picture of a young man full of promise, and with just the kind of swagger reserved for the young on the exhilarating edge of anything-is-possible.
He begins his speech with a small joke, delivered easily and with charm, and loosens up his audience of regalia-clad faculty and classmates, and their families. He’s a natural. Daniel delivers a powerful take-home message of exuberant joy and promise for the future. Just the thing to start out this ceremony, which marks a major life moment for each of the students who will take the stage and receive their graduation honors on this day. Cheers ring out – Daniel is one of their own, and stands with his classmates and proud faculty on the verge of possibility – the good things of life are not only possible, but probable and within reach for each of the students, and they know it. Indeed, Daniel is one of them.
Daniel spoke openly and honestly of his intellectual disability as a simple fact which makes up a part of his identity, but it is clearly only a part of who he is. In this company, it seems almost incidental. Hard to imagine that this man spent his elementary, middle, and high school years in segregated classrooms for at least a good part of the time. As for all the students, university success leads most students on a path that is different than they would otherwise have experienced. For Daniel, this is particularly poignant and meaningful. For Daniel, university success may well mean a path away from ever being defined by his disability, a path away from lifelong client-hood and into lifelong citizenship. For those of us who get to bear witness to this small but exquisite moment, we can see the fruit of our hard and faithful work in some way.
For me, I take heart at the small, exquisite moments that are mostly unheralded but that signal the changes which are stirring within India as the promises made to India’s disabled citizens and their families begin to take root and grow. I think of the men and women across India in mental institutions looking with hope towards gaining their freedom, the families who are striving to create a secure future and a decent education for their children, and the people themselves struggling to find their own voice and be heard. We must approach this work of building an inclusive community with pragmatism and grit, but also with unreasonable hope that the extraordinary will happen. Thank you for this message, Daniel.