By Bruce Koppenhoefer

I’ve been involved in Alabama’s disability community for close to 30 years. and I’ve learned that achievement is a big deal. We strive for, encourage, and celebrate it. So, with last month being the celebration of one of the most momentous human achievements of all time, putting a person on the moon, it seemed appropriate to talk about achievement.

My son is very low level, identified early on as being on the cusp between profound and trainable. That means he can learn, but it’s a slow process. Sometimes very slow.

One Toy

For the past couple decades, he has played with only one toy, a Playskool Kids Keys. It’s a sort-of kidney shaped toy with an inset handle and a keyboard, plus some control buttons. He liked the tactile feel of the keyboard and buttons as much as anything, and would run his fingers laterally along the keyboard more so than pressing individual keys. Over time, the keys didn’t hold up to the lateral forces, and they would break off. Once the first one broke free, others would rapidly follow, leaving the keyboard looking like the semi-toothless smile of a jack-o-lantern.

I would buy replacements from e-Bay and Amazon till I tracked down the actual maker of the toy and discovered that returning the old unit with a check for $20 would get a new one sent to me. A few years ago, they quit making the toy completely, and that process stopped. He doesn’t seem to care that his unit(s) have few, if any keys; it functions like a security blanket. He holds it all the time that he’s sitting on the sofa. As long as the batteries are good, it will still produce rhythm sounds and its default built-in melody, Happy Birthday, when he touches the right button.

A Second Toy

About 3 or 4 years ago, I ran across a similar toy, a Learning Journey Melody Maker. It has the handle and a keyboard, plus 26 buttons with an alphabet character and associated image (e.g., T & Train) that makes a related sound when pressed (mashed in Southernese). It’s fairly sophisticated, with 5 different games that can be played, and it speaks its own encouragement: “Let’s play a game.” “Are you there?” “Let’s play.” It’s even bilingual. I put it within arm’s reach on the sofa and would encourage his interaction by pushing keys and buttons to make sounds. Nothing. No interest.

This went on for months. Gradually, he began to touch the new toy, without letting go of the old one. He’d press an alpha button or a key and seemed to enjoy the interaction of producing sound. That in itself seemed like a major achievement.

In time, he became more familiar and accepting, reaching the point where he would allow it to time out (“Bye, bye,” it would say) before touching a key and starting the cycle over. I think he enjoys hearing it speak. Earlier this year, I began encouraging him to make more than a single touch, playing a string of keys myself and telling him to “play some music.” Praising him when he would do two or three keys.

His Big Achievement

Last month he did a string of six keys. I heaped praise on him. He smiled. It felt like a big achievement. It was small in the grand scheme of things, but for him, and for me, it felt big.

I haven’t heard him do six keys again since, though he may have done it without me being aware. But touching three or four keys now is common. He interacts with it often, almost constantly. and I’m still encouraging him to do more.

United We Achieve

The point is that achievement in the disability world comes in many sizes and flavors. It may be participation in sports. It may be earning a job. It may be a college degree. Or it may be as small as touching multiple keys on a toy. It may be individual achievement. Or it may be a united achievement. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) turned 29 this year, and that could have been achieved only with a united effort.

The theme of this year’s Alabama Disability Conference is “United We Achieve”. We will be recognizing achievement. We will have sessions on individual achievement, but there will also be sessions on the policies we still need and the united advocacy it will take to get them enacted. I hope to see many of you there. We have lots we can still achieve.