Overcoming disadvantage to reach unforeseen heights, rewrites the scope of one young man’s potential. Words by Laura Schober
“I just wish today’s kids would be a little more tolerant,” says David Thompson, whose son Andrew was teased, taunted and beaten up during elementary and high-school. Andrew has an intellectual disability and struggled with math and English – reading, writing and spelling made for an academic nightmare.
But after grade 10, the bruises and name calling ended for Andrew. “I guess it’s because I got taller!” says Andrew half-jokingly.
Though Andrew finished highschool at age 20, he faced another obstacle that same year when he was diagnosed with keratoconus, a condition where the cornea progressively thins out into a conelike bulge, eventually leading to blindness.
Despite his visual impairment, Andrew attended both George Brown College and Humber College during his early to mid ’20s. (He is now 30- years-old and has since undergone the first of two eye operations that will restore his vision.)
Like most college and university students, those years were a time of self-discovery for the young man, who says it was the first time in his life that he began to break out of his shell and develop his own social circle. He spent five years at Humber, taking courses through the Access to Success program (a program designed to help students with a disability upgrade their academic and life-skills so they can pursue a college education), and graduated with a literacy and basic skills certificate. Andrew can now read and write at a college level.
“It’s one of my proudest accomplishments, considering when I started at Humber my literacy level was at grade 11,” he says. Andrew credits his parents, David and Vera, for always encouraging him to go to college and pursue a meaningful career.
“I think that’s it’s something my parents instilled in me when I was five years old,” he says. “I had a hard time with other things, but I was always brought up in a culture where the sky is the limit.”
Over 1,700 people with intellectual disabilities (generally defined by an IQ at or below 70) are assisted by Community Living Mississauga, a not-for-profit organization that Andrew and his family have been involved with for a decade.
Community Living provided him with the confidence and workplace skills he needed to make the jump into the full-time workforce. For the past two-years, he has worked as an administrative associate at FedEx, a position he received by way of a promotion; one year after he began working there as a package handler.
A typical work day for Andrew sees him providing customer service to customs brokers over the phone and dealing with any situations that arise.
“It definitely keeps you on your toes,” says Andrew, who has plans to start studying for his customs brokerage license.
“It takes a little more hard work than the average person, but we’re normal just about as everyone else, if you can really call it normal.”
Many who know Andrew say his light-hearted sense of humour, positive outlook on life and hardwork ethic have helped him get to where he is today.
Kelly Kenny-Moses, 44, a passionate advocate and volunteer who runs the youth social and leadership groups at Community Living, says Andrew made a memorable first impression on everyone.
“Right away there was a presence to Andrew when he came to the group, he was very sociable,” she recalls.
“Even with different people he met through the youth group, he always looks for the best in people and he would advocate for people on his own.”
When she asked him if he wanted to volunteer with Community Living as a self-advocate for people with intellectual disabilities, Andrew enthusiastically accepted. Over the years, Andrew has spoken out about the challenges he faced growing up. He’s presented his talks at Mississauga schools, golf tournaments, conferences and at a Community Living tribute dinner.
While serving on the committee, Andrew would analyze the results of questionnaires sent to Community Living members and would point out weaknesses in poorly received programs and recommend ways to make existing services better. In 2005, he was voted to the Board of Directors and appointed Co-Vice President, becoming the first member with an intellectual disability to be chosen for that role.
“I think people need to focus on the positives that people can do, whether they have an intellectual or physical ability,” says Keith Tansley, executive director of Community Living. “I think everybody needs to be given a chance.”