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The Powerful Force of Advocacy in Living Well with a Disability: The Stories of James & Greg

A chest up shot of James, a young black man next to a chest up shot of Greg, a middle-aged white man.

When it comes to adjusting, modifying, accommodating, and succeeding in life with a disability, many factors affect each individual's outcome. Some people are born with disabilities and, depending on their environment, may grow up with limited expectations, hopes, and dreams. The upbringing of others, however, may foster high personal expectations, sometimes established, facilitated, and encouraged by parents or other family members. For those who acquire a disability later in life, adapting to a new normal often requires serious adjustments.

A Change in Life's Direction After Adoption — James' Story

A smiling James in Eastern Michigan football gear on the football field.

James is a young man who embodies the definition of success when it comes to working through challenges and overcoming physical and cognitive disabilities. Born with cerebral palsy, he spent his early childhood in the foster care system. In fourth grade, he was adopted by a caring mother and brought into a loving home. He subsequently began attending a public school where a supportive educational team provided effective services for children with disabilities.

Throughout his middle and high school years, James learned to formulate a vision of what his life could look like. Prior to age nine, he was not surrounded by others who would help him develop any meaningful objectives to work toward. As he entered the sixth grade, he was unable to ambulate independently or write his name. During this time, he received surgical intervention, which improved his balance and allowed him to walk unassisted.

James describes his mother as a nice and caring person who raised him to treat people well and work to get what he wanted in life. He appreciates that she encouraged him to achieve his own goals. His greatest advice to others with a disability is that "you can do it; you just have to advocate."

When James was in his first year of high school, he introduced himself to the football coach and offered to help with the team. He spent several successful years working to manage the football equipment. James says that during his sophomore year, he decided he would like to work with a nearby college team. Before graduating high school, he contacted the Eastern Michigan University football coach and stated his desire to volunteer with the team, helping with the equipment. This continues to be his favorite job, and he travels with the team every season.

James in front of the scoreboard at an Eastern Michigan football game.

James also works part-time at a local restaurant, primarily cleaning tables. He lives interdependently, benefitting from Section 8 housing assistance and utilizing agency support regularly. He shares a home with two other men and lives within proximity to his mother. He can walk or ride his bike to both jobs or take a local bus if needed.

James actively seeks to expand his world and create new friendships. Through his church work and love of music, he is often invited to play in bands where he sings, plays guitar, and writes songs. Also, because of his passion and need for cycling as a means of transportation in his daily life, he worked diligently with others to help pass legislation for bike safety in the state of Michigan. He was an integral part of passing Nathan's Law, which requires driver's education courses to include information about bicycle and motorcycle awareness.

A group of 4 people including James with their arms around each other smiling for the camera.

Throughout his time in secondary education, James demonstrated an outstanding ability to focus on his strengths and lean into his incredible support system to push ahead with his life dreams. Thus, the foundation for a life filled with love, service, and success has followed.

Turning a Tragic Event into a Life of Ambition and Achievement — Greg's Story

Greg sitting in the driver's seat of a golf cart giving a thumbs up and smiling.

Greg Cooley, the founder of 2LIV4, is a 45-year-old man who grew up in a loving family with a set of high expectations for himself. Life changed dramatically one day when he was involved in a motor vehicle accident just before his fourteenth birthday. Greg sustained significant injuries to his brain and spinal cord, forcing him to modify his previous hopes and dreams and move forward in very different directions than planned.

When he was finally able to return to the education system, he had to change schools due to a lack of accessibility within his previous building. By the time he entered high school, he had progressed physically and could ambulate, or as he calls it, employ "a controlled stumble," using the available ramps. The administration allowed him to leave each class early for safe walking in the halls, though he reports that he did occasionally fall. Greg's injury affected the area of his brain related to balance, and he continues to use a walker or a wheelchair daily.

Greg in his wheelchair smiling and chasing iguanas.

Becoming self-aware and using good judgment has always been an area where Greg has done well. He successfully graduated from high school, crediting his older sister, Justina, for helping him establish good relationships with his teachers. Instead of her ensuring his safety, he states that she encouraged him to advocate for himself.

Greg graduated from college with a degree in Computer Information Systems. Although he credits the University of Northern Colorado for having an outstanding program to help students with cognitive disabilities, he needed more support with his physical challenges. After transferring to Metropolitan State University of Denver, he was able to utilize a scribe and was provided with extra time and a quiet, separate room for test-taking.

Upon completing his education, Greg worked in the oil and gas industry. During the pandemic, he left his place of employment. Greg states that it has been challenging to find and utilize community resources in areas of employment and has expressed that, overall, this impacts his feelings of discouragement.

An underwater shot of Greg scuba diving with a scuba buddy in the background.

As with James, Greg has also developed a network of social and physical activities he enjoys. After dreaming of scuba diving, he got certified and has been on more than 100 dives. Greg also participates in other sports and outdoor recreational activities regularly, including adaptive climbing, kayaking, and sky diving.

Greg, together with his incredible support system, has created a meaningful and successful life for himself by focusing on relationships and doing what he loves. He also takes pride in the founding of his nonprofit as a way of giving back to the disability community and helping others find their 2LIV4 moments and experiences.

Advocacy: the Road to Fulfillment

Both James and Greg have something in common that is very powerful: the quality of self-advocacy. Each of them started life with different backgrounds and circumstances. James' initial home situation held low expectations for future success, whereas Greg's family encouraged progress toward living as an educated, thriving young man. For James, finding a permanent home and family support facilitated a change in the trajectory of his life. Greg continued to live with a loving and supportive family after his accident, though he was forced to modify his dreams and goals by a turn of events.

James strongly states, “I don't want my disability to stop me." He is willing to put in the work and advocate for himself. For Greg, this did not come easily. Self-advocacy is something he had to learn. Developing the needed self-awareness, problem-solving skills, and communication took tremendous effort. Discouragement was an interfering factor. Greg had to modify his life plans and develop the confidence to explore his options and discover what he wanted to do to bring his life meaning. James says emphatically, "You have to ask, speak up, use your words, and be very specific.” But none of these qualities, which they both now possess, came easily for them.

Greg states that he had to come to accept that he would not be able to compete with others in the same way. He says, "I had to change my frame of mind." He describes that journey as a search to find his niche, to find the "something that he can do and enjoy." For him, that became expanding his love of aquatic life from his personal aquarium care to volunteering at the Denver Aquarium, where he shares his love with children and visitors and feels confident and joyful!

All people with disabilities, whether acquired at birth or later in life, have specific needs, wants, and rights. For many, hope lies in finding the right vocational fit, social circle, and leisure activities.

James in front of a large phot of the Eastern Michigan football field. Greg on a nature trail in the forest flexing his biceps.

James and Greg are wonderful examples of people who have advocated for themselves to create the life they deserve. Both young men credit family, friends, and community for their success and emphasize the value of others being patient, genuine, and encouraging. There is no replacement for the empowerment that comes from self-advocacy and the loving support of others.

Do you have a story of self-advocacy to share? Click below!

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