Bridget Brown speaks about her educational career and her Down syndrome challenges during Saturday’s second annual Down Syndrome Foundation Educational Workshop, held at New Mexico Military Institute’s Toles Learning Center. (Randal Seyler Photo)
Family support and dwelling in one’s dreams are the keys to a successful, happy life, says Bridget Brown, of Chicago, who is a successful public speaker, film star and personal coach.
Brown, 27, also happens to have Down syndrome.
The disease has not stopped her from living the life she wants, nor does it define her, and she credits her family, faith, teachers and her friends for her many successes.
“Meister Eckhart said it best,” Brown says, “If I say only one prayer a day, it is ‘thank you.’”
Brown says she has been blessed in her life by special teachers and friends, and recounted how one lifelong friend stood up for her when she was being bullied in school. “She is my hero, and she changed my life. We were together in elementary school, junior high and high school, and we graduated together on the same stage.”
“My friend is a giver of hope for me, and she encourages me to smile,” Brown said, “She is the reason I am here today, and she’s my champion.”
Brown and her mother, Nancy, were in Roswell on Saturday as the keynote speakers at the second annual Down Syndrome Foundation of Southeast New Mexico’s Educational Workshop, held at New Mexico Military Institute’s Toles Learning Center.
Brown redefines the term “inclusion” by being the first person with Down syndrome to be included in her school district, according to her website, butterfliesforchange.org. She graduated in 2005 as a result of this successful school experience. She is a national public speaker and shares tools and strategies she used to be successfully included. She also is a person-centered planning coach and works with young adults with disabilities to help them find their own voice.
The theme of their presentation was “Dwell in the Possibilities,” and Nancy Brown explained how she took an active role in making sure Bridget was included in educational opportunities from pre-school onward.
“At first I was shy, and I was kind of sneaking around for meetings, but eventually, I took charge and started looking for ways to make sure Bridget was included in the educational curriculum,” she said.
When she first approached the neighborhood pre-school, the owner suggested Bridget be brought in for a play period to see how she got along with the other children. Nancy considered it, but decided it would be better to have Bridget experience the whole educational experience — and that decision set the tone for her daughter’s entire educational career.
“In 1960, my aunt had a daughter, Marie, and she had Down syndrome,” Nancy said. “The doctors came to her and said that Marie would need to be institutionalized, would be there forever, and it would be best to just go on with your life. And that is what happened.
“I grew up knowing I had a relative named Marie who lived in an institution, but I never met her.”
However, by 1986, when Bridget was born, the world had changed. Nancy had worked as an assistant in an independent living home while she was a college student, and had seen how people living with disabilities could be independent with the support of a community. When Bridget was born, she wanted her daughter to have nothing less than a full life.
“If we separate our children, then we don’t value them,” Nancy said. She resolved to consider the possibilities for her daughter. “I asked myself, ‘what would she do if she did not have Down syndrome?’”
She worked with the school personnel over the years to ensure that Bridget was at least spending 80 percent of her education in general curriculum classes, and that she had opportunities to participate just like every other student.
“Special education is not a place, it is about supports,” Nancy said.
Nancy also described the process for charting goals and dreams that developed during Bridget’s education, a process Bridget calls Person Centered Planning.
PCP consists of brainstorming dreams and goals of the student and the support team members help with achieving those goals.
“If a student says, ‘I want to be a doctor,’ they may not be able to go to medical school. But if we ask them, ‘what about being a doctor would you like to do?’ and they say, ‘I want to help people get better,’ then a whole range of opportunities open up that can allow that person to pursue that dream,” Nancy said.
The PCP process works not only with disabled children, but with adults as well, especially in programs that are working to make disabled adults more independent.
Bridget’s recap of her academic career and her own person centered planning speaks to the success of her mother’s insights and efforts. Besides being a good student, Brown was also active in many clubs and extracurricular activities in high school, and she continues to take college courses even as she travels to national speaking engagements, works as a dental assistant’s assistant, and works on her own self-empowerment program, butterfliesforchange.org.
She appeared in the film “LOL,” with Miley Cyrus, and the TV series “Shameless,” with William H. Macy.
“Miley Cyrus was really great, she was really down to earth,” Bridget said, jokingly adding, “although her reputation is not all that hot right now.”
Bridget said inclusion is the gift that community can give to those who face challenges like Down syndrome. “Inclusion is about respecting people, and I have had so many friends who helped me every day, and I am still learning how to use the gifts that God has given me.”