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Reach for the stars
OnYourMind: Donna Karis encourages all three of her sons to grow up, including her son with disabilities
"He deserves to grow up, just like all of our children, despite his limits."
--Donna Karis

by Donna Karis

My 20-year-old disabled son had a dentist appointment last week. The hygienist looked in his mouth and she said, "I didn't know his teeth would be so clean!"

At 3 years old, my son developed a severe form of epilepsy. After trying every treatment and seven years of uncontrolled seizures, a drug-induced coma nearly took his life, but stopped most of the seizures. The thousands of brain-cell-killing seizures resulted in his cognitive disability.

Ten years have passed since that traumatic time and, due to few seizures since, his brain continues to heal and his abilities grow. Judging his cognitive age is difficult. He has the emotions of a teen, the academic level of a 5-year-old and abilities in between.

My husband and I have three sons. We want all three to "reach for the stars" and "follow their dreams," although what we hope for most is they have healthy, happy lives.

There are no bounds for the two who will graduate from college and live independent lives. We realize our son with a disability must reach for smaller dreams and lower stars, but we still have goals for his future.

When he learns a new skill, we raise our expectations. Why aren't we satisfied with his current skill level? Because he can reach higher!

Ten years ago, he relearned how to walk after his legs were paralyzed from seizures. There was a point in time when he couldn't zip his own coat. Now he can. He has become a productive member of a farm where people with and without disabilities work together.

Some of these tasks took little time to learn and others have taken years. We consider the biggest assignment of our lives teaching our special needs child to be an adult.

"What does it matter? He doesn't know the difference," the dental hygienist said unknowingly, after allowing him to choose a toy from the kids' treasure chest and I had objected.

He does know the difference. We talk to our son about his adulthood all the time. We explain appropriate behavior for grownups and digging through plastic toys as a reward is not one of them. He knows this, but can't resist the lure of a toy and permission to have one. She did him a disservice. He deserves to grow up, just like all of our children, despite his limits.

So I ask all the well-meaning people who encounter my son, set your expectations high. He can meet the challenge.

Donna Karis is completing her memoir about raising a son with life-threatening epilepsy. She lives in River Falls, Wis., with her husband and three sons. www.donnakaris.blogspot.com

What's on your mind? For writers' quidelines, go to www.womenspress.com and click on "About us." Email your 450 personal essay to editor@womenspress.com.

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