By James Harris-Beaudry
My sister Jenny is a thirty year old day-care assistant who lives in her own apartment. She also happens to have cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability. It is amazing to talk about how far we’ve come and the abilities my sister has developed, becoming the bright, loving, and independent woman that she is today.
My name is James Harris-Beaudry and I am the second oldest of five kids. Growing up as the second oldest in my family and having two working parents meant extra responsibilities for me. I had care-giving responsibilities not only for my younger siblings, but for my oldest sister also.
We grew up in a small town of about 800 people and everybody knew each other. In school, my sister was always one grade ahead of me. Often times, I had regular education teachers coming to me and asking me questions about the best way to help with and how to handle different situations with Jenny.
They were not well educated in dealing with individuals with disabilities. This put extra stress and responsibilities on me at a young age, yet helped me to educate myself on my sister’s disability. It also gave me the opportunity to educate others about her physical and mental differences but more importantly others learned that she was basically the same as everyone else. This was my tool to teach others to focus on her abilities rather than the “dis”abilities.
I would consider myself a very overprotective brother to my sisters. I can remember times in grade school feeling obligated to protect my sister by any means necessary. Often times the younger students would throw around the word “retarded” in a joking manner. They didn’t realize how badly this word hurt people like my sister and myself. I can remember in third grade, literally getting into a fist fight with another kid on the playground because he was making fun of my sister. Eventually, I got to the point where rather than getting angry and physically fighting people over their use of the “R” word, I would use it as an opportunity to educate others on the pain and hurt behind the word. My friends began to respect my opinion on this issue and to this day, they will not use the “R” word around me even in a joking manner. I currently coach football, basketball, and track at the middle school level and I take the opportunity to educate our youth at their most impressionable age about the “R” word.
At the middle school level, I can remember people starting to be more comfortable around Jenny and started including her more in many social aspects. Jenny participated in track all three years of middle school. She did not earn a letter her 6th and 7th grade years but rather wanted to be involved in the social aspect of it. I can remember going to track meets and feeling like I had extra responsibilities because I would have to make sure that Jenny ate her lunch, put on her sun screen, tied her shoes, etc. By the time she was an 8th grader, many of the other track team members were helpful and started looking out for Jenny. This was good for Jen and for me.
Since Jenny had not lettered in middle school track, her only opportunity was to finish in the top three of any event at the league track meet. The coach talked with my mom about having Jenny run the two mile (8 laps), as this was the only event that would guarantee that she could place in the top three. There were only three girls running in this race.
The coach explained to Jenny that if she needed, she could walk during the race. Mom agreed to let her try it as long as Jenny could quit at any time she needed to. Prior to Jenny running the race, I felt nervous and worried about something happening to her. I was probably more nervous than Jenny! Right before the race began, all of our teammates formed a circle around the entire inside portion of the track to cheer Jenny on. Jenny ran the entire first lap with our teammates cheering her on! She then began to walk, but that was okay, all she had to do was finish the race!
To my amazement some of the other athletes from other schools begin to line the track and cheer her on. This was the largest crowd I have seen cheering someone on for a track event! My sister eventually finished the race, lettered in track, and more importantly helped her team to gain enough points to win the league championship! Seeing Jenny that day and the smile she had on her face helped us to realize our advocacy efforts were paying off and my sister was helping to educate others on her abilities.
In high school, Jenny was a social queen. She enjoyed attending football games, participated in track, dances and was a part of many groups and organizations. I still felt the need to help educate others as well as being the protective big brother. Once, while standing in the line for lunch, Jenny came to me and told me a boy was picking on her. I told her she could handle it and she looked at me and smiled! Jenny walked over to the boy and kicked him below the belt. She no longer needed me to fight her fights as she was becoming independent and able to take care of herself!
In Jenny’s senior year, she was nominated for football homecoming queen. Since there were only two seniors (seniors are normally the escorts for homecoming) on the team, and three senior candidates, and I was a junior and a captain, I was asked to escort my sister. On homecoming night my sister got her hair and makeup done and looked like a true queen. Since typically the “popular” girls win, I wasn’t expecting Jenny to win. I was just honored to escort her! One of the greatest experiences of my life happened that night, when her name was announced for homecoming queen! I was so overjoyed and nervous, I grabbed the wrong bouquet of flowers and had to go back and grab the right ones. Knowing that our peers had selected my sister as homecoming queen made it very hard for me to concentrate on the football game that night because I was so overwhelmed with emotions! This is one of the most memorable moments of my life and truly shows how far we have come in our efforts to educate others on seeing the abilities not the disabilities! That same school year, our high school won the Families Together, Inc. Inclusion award.
Jenny enjoys being a part of her community and knowing that she is continuing to help educate others by teaching them about and focusing on her abilities! She is truly an inspiration to me! I am glad to call her my sister! Growing up with a sister with a disability, I faced many different challenges and responsibilities. I felt like my sister received more attention from my parents than I did. I also felt like I was always having to be protective and provide extra care for her. Those extra responsibilities, as well as trying to educate others, made me grow up faster and realize my gift to provide care for others. Growing up with my sister and the guidance of my mother, who also works in the disability field, has helped guide me into my career choice of serving those with disabilities.
Jenny is and always will be the Queen of my heart! “Friends will come and go, but family is forever”.
James is a graduate of Fort Hays State University and currently works as a Quality Compliance, Education and Training Services Coordinator for a Developmental Disability Organization.