November 20-22, 2013 · Columbus, OH · Greater Columbus Convention Center
SHAWNA: Good morning. Welcome everyone. I'm Shawna Benson. I'm the program director for the disabilities center at OCALI, and I have the privilege this morning of introducing you to a vivacious young man, who we see as a model for self-determination and great zeal for life. Connor is an author, an illustrator, a historian, and an advocate for the rights of all people, to pursue their dreams. His passion for history emerged here in Ohio as a student, and continues through his work, where he reminds us that history is a roadmap of life lessons, that are provided by our past. I'm so pleased that he has been able to venture back to Ohio today, um and inspire us toward our own inclusive practices in the fields of education, work, and our communities. Please join me in welcoming today's keynote speaker, Connor Gifford.
CONNOR: Good morning. I feel so grateful to be here with you today. When I found out that so many people invited me, I thought, "Wow." Size is really important. I'm here today because I made history in couple of ways. One was because I had something to say and I found a way to say it. [There?] is a reason why you're here today. Maybe it's because you have a bro-a child, a brother, or a sister with special needs. Maybe you have special needs like me. Maybe it's because someone special has touched your heart, when you're in school. Whatever the reason, I say thank you.
CONNOR: I feel grateful to be a person with Down's syndrome. I said that in my book. Yeah. I wrote a book. America, according to, well, me! I wrote it with my friend, Victoria Harris. When I was young, some people didn't think I would ever be able to read. Let alone, write a book about American history. One topic in the book is believing in yourself. We're all here today because we believe we have so much to give and so much to do in our future. In my first reading, I'd like to read about a young woman, who actually did believe in herself.
CONNOR: Thirst for freedom. 1778. During the revolutionary war, a young woman with her husband, right in a-right in the middle of a big battle. She was a servant, and her job was to bring pitchers of water to tired and thirsty soldiers. When her husband was shot, she stood her ground. She took-she took over firing his cannon. How brave that was. When George Washington learned what she had done, she named her a sergeant in her Army. From that time on, everyone called her Molly Pitcher. And she became a legend. But that's not the whole story. When my mom and dad moved us, our family, to California back to Ohio, [CLEARS THROAT] we moved to [Harrisburg?] because of their schools. Compared to other towns in the area, Harrisburg was the one for people like me, someone who is Down syndrome, with big dreams. Well, it wasn't that easy, just to have dreams. We needed angels on our side. Angels like Sharon Merrit [PH], who was our advocate and teacher from first through fifth grade.
CONNOR: She was brave. She was brave because she helped me and my spec-and my friends, to be as fully included as possible. She knew [the law?] and helped to create a new way to think about having people with disabilities. She knew in her-her heart, what was possible. She regularly add teachers [INAUDIBLE] and [worried?], so just first we just visited the real classrooms, then we all got brave. Us, our moms and dads, and [though?] we had rights, you sign up for our rights. One-and, do you know what happened? Well, do you? Once we became included, we had special aids to join the team. That helped lots of other children to learn better too. In third grade, they were going to send us to a separate school. School for people with special needs. It wasn't in-even in our town. We wanted to stay in our town, to go to school with all of our friends. Also, our moms and dads learned the words, due process. Went a long way.
CONNOR: We had to be brave. But that got us to high school, but we didn't now want to go to vocational schools. That was okay for some people, but as for us, we wanted to go to our high school. Be part in the choir, and be part of the musicals. I really wanted to do more about American history. We made history, and in 2002, by being the first four people with-with developmental disabilities to graduate from high school ever.
CONNOR: [CLEARS THROAT] By then, we had many angels, mentors, and advocates, and friends. One-what I learned most was my confidence in my abilities. I think ea-each step of the way has helped me to become a person I'm meant to be. I trained to become a self-advocate, at the abilities center in Toledo, Ohio. I loved being an acolyte at our church and also worked at a local grocery store. Then guess what? I made some more history. College. Which we-we had just moved East. And we were sure lucky to find Cape Cod Community College, right in our backyard. I always wanted to go to college, and there it was on Cape Cod. They have a great program called Project Forward. I worked really hard. In 2006, I earned my degree in [retail?] and computer technology.
CONNOR: After college, I couldn't get this American history thing out of my head. I had been making notes since the eighth grade. I studied my old history books. I've read my brother's history books. I even-and even my dad's [INAUDIBLE] history books. I told my mom and dad that I wanted to write this book. And this-this they smiled, and said, "Okay Connor." But, it wasn't until the fall of 2007 when I met Victoria Harris. We [started chatting?] about our passions, like history and our dream of writing books. We both got really excited about working together. [CLEARS THROAT] We worked from September '07 'til May of '08. She knew how to listen to my thoughts and ideas. And I learned to listen to hers too. Together we made our own history. This is how we started. When we got together, she asked, "What do you want to say in this book, Connor?" I said, "We hide behind our freedom." [INAUDIBLE] What that means to me is when we hide behind our freedom, and we do not see what's going around in other parts of the world, sometimes even just around the corner, we need to learn from the past. Open our eyes and make things better for people. Well, that started the ball rolling. We began the book with Native Americans and just kept on going. During that time, we even won an IPPY. The outstanding book of the year award was given to me by the Independent Publishers Association.
CONNOR: [CLEARS THROAT] They created a whole new category for our gold medal. The Independent Spirit Award. Oh wow. What a thrill! As I stand here today, I wonder how things would be for me now, if Sharon Merrit hadn't been our angel and advocate, a long, long time ago. As I stand here, looking out at all of you, the room fu-full of big thinkers, who can make America a better place to live for people with disabilities. It all starts with believing in people. All people. I believe my experiences in the past have been preparing me what comes next. Another dream. To live independently. I look forward to the opportunity for us all, I mean all, we'd be able to le-live in the American dream.
CONNOR: For my last reading, I'd like to share a few thoughts. First, responsibility. Respect for law. Freedom does not mean that you are free to hurt other people. Do you ag-agree with me? Next, listening. If we start an argument, we must finish it right away. We need to listen to one another, stop and ask, "What were you going to say?" And last, give me a higher power. Amer-Americans are very religious. We worship God in different ways, and that is okay. As great [INAUDIBLE] have taught us, we can practice religion freely. It does not matter if we are Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists. When we pray, we do it with respect. We dictate within ourselves and say, "I believe." Please repeat that after me. I believe. For my-
CONNOR: For my thank yous. First and foremost, I'd like to thank Simon and OCALI [INAUDIBLE] for giving me this opportunity. Thank you. Second, to Victoria Harris, for her helping me to find my voice. And thirdly, I'd like to thank two people who raised me. Right now, I'm a [man to be?]. My dad Chuck, who's not here, but my beloved mom, Julie. I also like to thank all of you, for listening to my story, I ho-I hope I-I inspired you even more than you already are about your part in American history. And right now, I'd like to sh-share something with you. All of you. [CLEARS THROAT] Kathie Lee-Kathie Lee Gifford did a segment about me from The Today Show, and here's that clip. Thank you.
FEMALE 1: And we're back with more here on Today.
KATHIE LEE: It's often the younger generations who are the most resistant to learning about history, but one young man with a very different outlook on life has found a way to make the past relatable for every one of us.
CONNOR: Hi. Welcome, how many-how many are you.
FEMALE 2: Ten.
KATHIE LEE: [OVERLAP] With three jobs, Connor Gifford already has a packed schedule, working at a museum, a thrift store, and as a restaurant host.
CONNOR: Two of you?
KATHIE LEE: But as a newly published author, the 26-year-old with Down's syndrome is serving up lessons from American history.
CONNOR: What America means to me, is a land of hope, land of freedom.
KATHIE LEE: America According to Connor Gifford, is the brainchild of Victoria Harris, who was so inspired by Connor, that she put her own book project on hold, to capture and publish his thoughts on paper.
VICTORIA: Oh I was just struck by his personality, his loving, engaging personality. And through Connor, I thought I'd found a person who could say things in a new way that would-would be refreshing. Uh, not the same old way of presenting history.
KATHIE LEE: Unlike the volumes already dedicated to American history, this book spans 400 years in just 53 simple sections.
VICTORIA: Just because something's simply expressed doesn't mean it's for children, and just because somebody has Down's syndrome, doesn't mean they should be sent to the children's section of the libraries. Treating people with disabilities as adults, with significant things to say is a very, very important thing that this book does.
MALE 1: This one's for the past.
KATHIE LEE: Seen by some as a disability, Connor considers Down's syndrome a blessing. A challenge that's given him a unique perspective on life and the future, shaped by history.
CONNOR: They n-need to learn our history so we can prevent any future mistakes. Oh guys, no, you didn't make me laugh!
KATHIE LEE: Connor had always wanted to write, but says it wasn't until working with Victoria, that he was able to truly find his voice.
MALE 2: Hi Connor Gifford.
CONNOR: Hey [Gordon?].
MALE 2: How are you?
CONNOR: I'm [OVERLAP].
KATHIE LEE: And now the book has cemented Connor as a local celebrity.
MALE 3: Loved it. Can't wait for Hollywood.
FEMALE 3: So you're gonna go on your way, you have a book signing at noon, you're a little late darling, you gotta keep moving.
FEMALE 4: Um, oh. To Paula.
CONNOR: Paula? Okay. I am just living my life, working my jobs.
KATHIE LEE: And spreading his message of improving the future, through the lessons of the past.
CONNOR: We can change the world, [find?] cures for diseases, make our Earth clean. America is going to come back. Oh yes. God bless the US of A.
FEMALE 1: Hmm. What a sweet, sweet [OVERLAP].
KATHIE LEE: So we don't-we do have the last same name, we're not related but the book is dedicated to a member of the NBC family, and a beloved man on the island of Nantucket, of course Tim Russert.
FEMALE 1: Oh. That's a great picture.
KATHIE LEE: So to read an excerpt from the book, go to todayshow.com. What an honor.
FEMALE 1: What a sweet, sweet, sweet guy.
KATHIE LEE: Talk-talk amongst yourselves.
FEMALE 1: All right, we'll be back but first this is Today on NBC.
KATHIE LEE: Sweet. What a sweet…
When Opportunity Knocks, Make History!
10:30 - 11:45 | Hall F
Connor Gifford is an historian, writer, illustrator, and dreamer. Through hard work, self-advocacy, and a strong support team, Gifford has achieved personal success by recognizing his dreams, believing in himself, and preparing for the future. His 2009 book, America According to Connor Gifford (co-authored with Victoria Harris), received the 2009 IPPY Outstanding Book of the Year Independent Spirit Award. Gifford will share his life experiences – the joys and struggles – which have helped to make him who he is today.
Connor Gifford attended Perrysburg Public Schools in Northwest Ohio. In 2002, he and several friends became the first people with developmental disabilities to graduate with their peers from Perrysburg High School, having been fully included in all aspects of elementary through high school. He then attended Cape Cod Community College and in 2006 graduated from a specially designed education and living studies program called Project Forward. Since moving to Nantucket, MA, he fulfilled one of his biggest dreams – to write an American History book which he co-authored with Victoria Harris. With a bit of help from his mother, he also created illustrations for America According to Connor Gifford. He currently works at the Dreamland Theatre but has had many interesting opportunities in the work place such as a docent at Nantucket’s Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum, and remains on the Board for STAR, an innovative provider of sport related services to children with special needs. Gifford lives in Nantucket, with his Mom and Dad, Julie and Chuck, and his cats, Bert and Leddie.
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