MARQUETTE, Mich. — Dorothy Paad’s most memorable experience was going to Disney Land for the first time. She was 12.
“It was really the first time I remember having a vacation,” says Padd. “It was certainly the first time I remember the concept of a dream coming true and working hard for that dream.”
She remembers the big sliding doors, and how wide they opened for her. She’d never seen anything like that happen. Pluto was there.
“He was good at pushing the wheelchair, too,” says Paad. “Disney is where the real magic is.”
Paad says Disney’s disability pass is a magical thing. She was accommodated and included; something Paad often struggled to find in her experience living with a disability.
“Mickey must have an unwritten a rule that when the characters see someone in a wheelchair, they stop – they get on your level, and hug and kiss you. It’s just so nice when you’re at Disney in a position like I am. Disney is memorable not only because of what is there, but what isn’t there. No hospitals, no doctors, no CP (Cerebral Palsy), and there’s perks there.”
Would she give up her disability and not have the perks? You bet. But today, because of her experiences she’s an advocate for accessibility and inclusion. It’s given her a different perspective on life, one she cherishes with joy and uses to educate others. To those around her, Dorothy is a teacher.
Dorothy grew up under the care of her loving parents out of state. She was an Air Force daughter. When she was in high school she was interchanging between special education classes and general studies. There were many stages to her independence. Today, she is a student at Northern Michigan University studying theatre. She’s a thespian, a dancer, a skier, and as her caregivers endearingly refer to her – she’s a boss.
“My independence happened after I met a young woman with a disability who was a real dynamic force of nature,” says Paad. “I looked at the way she lived, and she taught me just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you have to put yourself in a box or that you have to be shut in.”
Her parents never wanted her to be shut in. They never forced her to not experience the world. She says she was shut in by choice. Paad was under the false impression that being disabled is synonymous with helplessness. She was going to have to live with her parents forever. College wouldn’t be an option. Having a job wouldn’t be an option.
Dorothy would turn the expectations of others flat on their bellies.
“My best advice giver is my dad,” says Paad. “He’s the voice I hear. He teaches. He taught me morals and values. I was taught to count my blessings instead of sorrows, put others before ourselves and without fanfare. Even when others mistreat you and when adults don’t act like adults, you take the high road.”
Dorothy experienced some adversity with caregivers over the years. She had been mistreated, emotionally abused. It broke her down, depressed her, and closed her in a shell. She was afraid to branch out because she was told she couldn’t.
Paad’s worst experience with a caregiver was with a paraeducator –a high school aid who assists students with daily activities and helps with academics – a one-on-one educator. For three years until her parents found out and stopped it, Dorothy was bullied by the very person responsible for her daily care.
“I really liked [them], but then there were red flags that I didn’t recognize,” says Paad. “They would act one way in front of the special education staff but act a different way when they were alone with me. It started out as, ‘Dorothy we’re friends and so we get to have these special chats. Don’t tell your parents. If you tell your parents, or you tell an authority, something bad is going to happen.’ They didn’t specify, but you knew it wasn’t going to be pleasant.”
The paraeducator would punish her and call it ‘discipline.’ Paad, just a teenager then, would go along with it because her bully was a teacher and authority figure.
“[They] would tell me I have Cerebral Palsy because God was punishing my parents for not being good Christians,” recalls Dorothy in tears. “[They] said I would never go to college, because ‘You’re too retarded.’ I’d never go to heaven.”
Paad will remember the experience for the rest of her life. She says she can’t forget, but she can forgive. It’s motivated her to move beyond the adversity and emotional abuse to accomplish monumental things.
“I was bitter and angry and it’s partly why I shut myself in. I didn’t want to get hurt again. But that’s when I found the outlet of dance, and when I found Ms. Jill [Grundstrom]. Ms. Jill is the polar and complete opposite of my bully.”
Grundstrom would introduce Paad to Northern Michigan University’s Theatre and Dance program. They adapted a few classes not just so Dorothy could participate, but so she could shine as a dancer – a far cry from her experience in high school.
“I do secretly have the desire when I graduate to find [my bully], take my college diploma and put it in their face. Even though their intention was to take away my dreams – one of which is getting a college diploma – they thought they had, and that I would never accomplish something. They thought they had robbed me of something, and they nearly did, but they didn’t.”
Paad is getting a degree for herself. But she says she’s in college precisely because they told her she couldn’t.
Today, Dorothy is a strong, confident, independent woman. She has profound opinions, is stubborn, and speaks her mind. She has also learned from those she calls ‘angels on Earth,’ or the good caregivers, to be an ear to listen, a hand to hold, and to approach people with a big smile and hugs.
Because of the experiences his daughter has overcome, Dorothy’s father, Eric Paad, is launching the Caregiver Incentive Project. Stories of caregivers, good and bad, have taught the family to create a new approach to finding quality care for people with disabilities. The new non-profit organization will ensure proper training, certification, and better recruitment techniques to encourage more ‘angels on Earth’ to pursue the important field. Eric Paad hopes CIP will be his and his daughter’s lasting legacies to safeguard a future for people with disabilities in the Upper Peninsula.
Dorothy’s parents have been responsible for over half of her daily 24 hour care. Paad says for a long time, her parents were her world. Her house was full of love and laughter, and without any secrets.
“They never made me feel like I was a burden,” says Dorothy, crying. “It was never difficult to ask for help. I’ve always felt like they understood me. My parents are my number one blessing. I wish every child could have parents like I do. They are unconditionally loving.”
Three caregivers now rotate their time with Dorothy and she cultivates three very special but unique relationships with each.
“Tracy is like a big sister,” says Paad. “We like the same shows. We finish each other’s sentences. Danielle is loving and very motherly. She’s protective. All my ladies protect me… Jamie comes and does the night shift because I can’t be alone. I’m a night owl so it’s like a sleepover with a friend. We’re in PJs with nighttime snacks. I love a good gab fest maybe more than I should.”
“I am the boss,” says Dorothy. “I am in control of my own life. I make my own choices. I don’t treat them like hired help. They’re not maids.”
It’s in the small and short interactions she has with her caregivers that have had the most profound impact on her, and vice versa. She’s had professors approach her at Northern and say, “I’m not the same person I was at the beginning of the semester and the reason is because of you.” Dorthy says conversations like this make her feel powerful, important, and as if she has purpose.
“Especially because of my past experience with educators, the good ones make me realize I matter.”
Dorothy says her future is wide open. She lives day to day, appreciating and marveling at the accomplishments she’s already conquered – dancing, skiing, studying, living independently. She hopes to travel the world and one days visit the White House. It’s a dream of hers.
“I’d love to meet any president, because I’m not even supposed to be alive,” says Paad. “I’d go from the NICU to the White House!”
When asked what legacy she hopes to leave with the world, Dorothy sat deep in thought for several minutes, lifted her head, and said with a smile, “Joy! Dorothy left joy.”
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