One recent day I entered the Edge gym and saw a teenager I thought I recognized but had never met: Harry Putnam.
Teens come to the Edge every day. But seeing him didn’t make sense.
Harry is a senior at Staples with cerebral palsy, he cannot speak and is reliant on a wheelchair and an assistant.
I walked past him, noting the computerized device before him.
I recognized it; it was similar to what Wynston Browne, a non-speaking autistic teen used to “speak”. For 14 years no one knew he was capable of communicating and assumed his capacity for learning leveled out at 3rd grade. The technology allowed him to prove he was, in fact, a very intelligent and knowledgeable young man.
Next time I saw Harry, I approached his speech pathologist, Christy Frederick, and asked if he was here to talk to people. “Yes,” she replied. “He’s here to greet people.”
“It’s great that the Edge does this!” Again, I addressed her.
I, and many others, did not grow up with regular exposure to disabled people. They had separate classes and schools, and I rarely saw them at stores or businesses. I had a cousin who volunteered in a “home” where some of them lived. And I mean “them” as anyone labeled as having a disability. Back then, they didn’t self-identify and they were rarely, if ever, mainstreamed.
But how could they be mainstreamed if we didn’t know they had voices? Or if we had any commonalities? Even now, as an adult, I didn’t think to interact with him. Instead, I spoke to the person who looked like me.
With advancements in technology, activism, and inclusivity, individuals with special needs are achieving far more than they ever could. They’re able to work in - and be welcomed into - the workforce. Suddenly, we see them. They’re taking our orders, helping us at CVS, and, in Wynston’s case, dreaming of becoming neuroscientists.
On certain days, Harry goes to the Edge Fitness in Norwalk. This is his “job site,” and his job is to say hello.
Monday mornings he’s at Rhythm and Rhyme class. He says hello to kids and their parents/caretakers, lets them know if the class is full, and helps out where he can. Both of his jobs are arranged through Staples.
The goal for him, and for others who benefit from these jobs, is to teach “soft skills” - picking up on social cues, greeting strangers, and following directions, for instance.
Currently, there are about 12 high schoolers with disabilities and their jobs are specific to their needs. This means Jessica LoCastro, a Staples Special Education Teacher, spends a lot of time contacting area businesses to craft meaningful positions. “We consider where their interests are, what the parents want, their strengths and challenges,” explains Jessica.
Though these jobs are important to the teens, consider how helpful it is to, well, me and hopefully others. Today it is possible to mainstream, but everyone needs to be educated and familiar with a population they may not know much about.
It’s a learning curve, and an important one. I imagine many gym-goers he greets have no idea he’s capable of conversing; now they know. The children he sees at Rhythm and Rhyme will grow up knowing physicality is only a small part of any person.
I learned to ask him for a quote for this article. ”I like my job at the library because people talk to me,” said Harry. “I feel like I'm helping the librarian. It is not hard, but it is fun."
The jobs, the special education staff at Staples, and the places in which they work (The Porch, MoCA, Edge Fitness, and so many more), are teaching everyone in the community life skills.
Today it is possible to mainstream, but everyone needs to be educated and familiar with a population they may not know much about.