Living with a stutter, autism, down syndrome, diabetes, or muscular dystrophy may sound like a life of struggle or a constant battle; for a population of students at PRHS, this is everyday life. They handle these with grace, strength of mindset, and almost absolute positivity, as visible to their teachers and peers.
Public perception of disability within communities has changed drastically within the past century, allowing for greater societal consideration for those who have some form of mental or physical disability. Aside from active moments for change, such as the Disability Rights Movement dating back to the 1800s and the League of the Physically Handicapped dating back to the 30s, society as a whole seems to have become more accommodating to the needs of others, rather than a one-size-fits-all method to the way the world works.
At PRHS, programs belonging to the Adaptive Learning Center, which is overseen by Chris Emmons, allow 16 students to experience community-based instruction to prepare for leaving high school, helping them to become as independent as possible. This method of learning begins as teachers meet their students on a certain educational standard they are at, then build on their skills to secure success past high school.
“Rather than focusing on what the kids can’t do, we focus on what they can,” Lydia Mello, one of five staff members who work in the ALC, said.
Despite an accepting and adaptable program, there remain struggles with inclusivity and lack of challenges in a school setting. Because students in this program may be assumed to be in a certain class simply to take part in it, several students have reported to have received an “easy A”, which doesn’t encourage them to work any harder in these classes. The goal of enrolling in a mainstream class is to work to challenge themselves as students, and a handed-out grade defeats this purpose.
More than anything, however, education builds on skills rather than allowing problems to arise. The students are overwhelmingly positive, and tend to approach new challenges with a smile on their faces. When the students are pushed to grow, they respond well, and reflect this growth themselves.
“I just love the innocence and the kindness [of the students],” Emmons said. “There’s no attitudes. They laugh at all my jokes, and they’re sweet.”
As these students tackle and thrive through their challenges, one goal fills many minds: to be treated like any other student. Though a disability may compose a portion of one’s identity, it is not an identity in itself, and there’s more to any student than what they may face.
“I want other students not to feel bad for me. I also want them to know that I can do more than other people,” Josue Alvarez, a senior with muscular dystrophy, said.
Josue Alvarado, maneuvers his way through crowds of fellow students.
Rolling around campus on the four wheels of his self-controlled electric wheelchair, senior and special handicap,
At the age of four, Alvarado was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare disease where muscles decrease in size and grow weaker over time. He is among every 1 in 3500 boys diagnosed each year.
Walking alongside him is special handicap paraeducator Sam Hogen, who has worked with Alvarado since his sophomore year. The pair attend Alvarados classes, complete homework, and grow their friendship more and more everyday
“He is special handicap. There are just things that you can see, like with his chair. He is not mobile and certain parts of his body can’t move like everyone else. His hands can only go about the level of a keyboard, no higher than that”
The challenges Alvarado faces each day are skills that come easily to most people.
“The challenges I face everyday are brushing my teeth, getting dressed, and me wanting to get something out of my backpack but not being able to because I can’t lift my hands up” Alvarado said when discussing his day to day lifestyle.
Alvarado is a part of the “Aqua Group” of the yearbook staff on campus. He helps with any extra work his classmates need. Yearbook is Alvarado’s time to do his own thing; “I give him his space in yearbook. I normally stand to the side and just watch,” Holgen said when expressing the environment in the classroom.
“Going to yearbook everyday and helping out with any work people need is an empowering moment to me.I feel the strongest when I get to make my own decisions”
He has grown more comfortable in his own skin learning to accept his disease.
The two years spent together has built a friendship for both Alvarado and Holgen. Due to attending classes everyday, as well as nutrition and lunch, the bond between them has grown professionally and emotionally. They have gotten to know each other on a personal level, likes and dislikes, mannerisms and sayings, and hopes and feelings.
“I hang out with Sam everyday, so he is pretty much my best friend,” Josue said.
This relationship has also impacted Holgen.
“When he leaves and graduates, I will miss [him]. He is the only student I have had at the high school. I think he is a very good young man. It has been a pleasure to work with him,” Holgen said.
When junior Scott Nicholson swung open the door to room 207, he found his friends Josue Alvarado , Jose Galvez, Brandon Harrison, sitting in semicircle of various desks and chairs. But he was occupied with the headline he read the prior night in the breaking news section of KSBY. “O-Overton,” he said slowly with rising enthusiasm. “Overton is the... new principal!”
Nicholson was eager to share his thoughts and opinions alongside his peers, just like any other student. All he needed was a little time to find the right words.
Since childhood, Nicholson struggled with stuttering, a board communication disfluency characterized by repetition and breaks in speech, that impacted his social skills, inclining him to communicate non-verbally.
“Embarrassed,” Nicholson said, reflecting on his biggest hurdle his freshman year, “in front of people. But, I had questions”.
Now, he has become an outward, ambitious, and active student over the past two years after finding a support group to overcome his social anxiety for speaking publicly.
Nicholson is one of the 3 million Americans who stutter, according to nidcd.nih.gov. Until Nicholson attended PRHS, he communicated primarily with an iPad he had won after his teachers at Lillian Larsen entered him in a contest. His school paid for the communication app Nicholson used throughout middle school. For his freshman year at PRHS, Nicholson was enrolled in the Adaptive Learning Center. His primary education consisted of invocational lessons, community based instruction, and modified math and English lessons. Nicholson found his place in the program.
“There’s a law called LRE -- the least restrictive environment,” said Special Ed teacher Chris Emmons, who was Nicholson’s main teacher and advisor for his freshman year, “so every student should receive their education, even in individual education plans, in the least restrictive environment. He was definitely a candidate [for individual classes] for his high level of independence and high level of functioning.”
Before he could speak his mind or ask a question, Nicholson first had to work up the courage and the right time to articulate his ideas at his own speed.
Whenever he had a question in class, then freshman Nicholson nervously gripped the pencil in his hand, heart racing. Today, he was practicing money counting, a math course designed to help him count change, but he didn’t quite understand why he had to round. He had the words in his head, now swirling in a current of fear for how he was going to say it. He looked at his fellow peers, wondering how they could speak with ease.
He reached for his iPad.
“I used the iPad because I had a hard time talking. I started using it in 6th grade. [It was a gift] from school to help me talk. It made me feel good,” Nicholson said.
When his classmates in room 331 began to express their same daunting frustration towards communicating their ideas and grasping new concepts, gradually, Nicholson realized that he wasn’t the only student who was struggling.
Some needed a reminder on how much a nickel was.
In the morning, others asked for the date while writing it on the board.
And some asked their peers what was next in the class schedule.
With every challenge he and his classmates conquered, Nicholson gained a better understanding of peer support.
“It was easier to talk about things in depth first, then myself,” Nicholson said. “I was most comfortable talking to Emmons [first]. Then friends. Then teachers.”
“He came to our class for most of the day where he felt very comfortable, because he was one of the highest functioning kids in the class. So, he began to use his voice more and he got to the point where he didn’t want to use the Ipad at all, “ Emmons said. “That is a big leap for him and he has even now reached out where he’s gone most of the day to other -?-, and he is just using his verbal communication to communicate with a lot more confidence than when he came to us.”
After his first year in the adaptive learning program, Nicholson steadily built up his independence by taking a class of his interest: agriculture. As a junior, Nicholson is now studying in five independent classes.
“I wanted to talk more with my friends in my class. It made me feel good,” Nicholson said. “[I felt] happy. I felt good about talking.”
Nicholson choose agriculture out of his passion for animals. There, he decided he wanted to work at a ranch as a ranch hand after high school.
Every Wednesday, Nicholson milled about the ag barn, breaking apart clumps of hay and tossing the pellets over the pen to waiting cows. With the last cow munching on its lunch, Nicholson checked up on all the animals: cows, goats, sheep, and rabbits, giving a loving pat on the head to any affectionate animal.
“The work was hard at first. But it felt good to go to classes---the ag class. I was excited to go to my ag class.” Nicholson said, “to see people, see the animals, and learn.”
“He has grown really confident to express what he likes. He loves politics, he’s up to current events, he loves agriculture and FFA. He voices his opinions about things and supports them with facts-- it’s awesome!” noted Lydia Mellow, a teacher at the center who watched Scott reach out to other students in his sophomore year.
“Yes, no, maybe, I don’t know, can you repeat the question?”Just like the show Malcolm in the Middle starts, sophomore Jackson Koudelka entertains students in the quad with this iconic theme song.
Adoring classmates ask him to sing again and again, all the while singing along and applauding.
“Jackson is wondrous; I like it when he sings,” sophomore Rodney Thompson said.
By one and a half years old, Jackson Koudelka was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a developmental disorder that is characterized as considerable difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. This diagnosis was soon changed to autism, a broad spectrum that includes all individuals who have a developmental disorder that affects their social interactions and/or ability to communicate. The diagnosis has led to years of obstacles with school and friendships. It has also led to victories and a family bond not understood by most onlookers.
While living in Los Angeles, Jackson’s parents noticed at one and a half years of age that he was different from the other kids.
“I ‘knew’ when he was a baby and by one-and-a-half was sure Jackson was a little different. We moved here because he was starting kindergarten and wanted to find him help,” Myla Koudelka said.
Moving to Paso Robles when Koudelka was about five years old opened their eyes to what their son was really dealing with. The diagnosis of Asperger’s was given because it specified that the individual displayed a significant delay in verbal cognition and general interactions. This type of diagnosis became convoluted and difficult to detect in its truest form, so Aspergers was folded into the autism spectrum. Koudelka has overcome language and speech barriers so well that he is able to sing in front of his friends and classmates confidently.
His mother, Myla, has been in Jackson’s corner from day one. “The struggle, I think, with being a mother is [that] you want your child to be happy, and you want them to flourish, and … from the moment we moved up here, when he started kindergarten, was that I’ve always just wanted him to have a friend,” Myla Koudelka said. For people on the autism spectrum, creating friendship and connections can be the biggest hurdle they will face. The nuances of social interaction are often elusive to a person with ASD, so the efforts they do make are sometimes misunderstood by the average person.
In 2018 the CDC actuated that roughly 1 in 59 children are on the autism spectrum, boys being four times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. According to an article by Autism Speaks, the average cost of raising a child with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) is $60,000 a year during childhood. The bulk of these costs come from special services and the loss of income from one or more of the parents due to the constant need for supervision and support. (data via autismspeaks.org)
“It’s really hard to concentrate and focus on my work… It’s hard for my peers to understand my enthusiasm,” Koudelka said. Jackson Koudelka has overcome bullying, academic setbacks, social wariness and in his life and today he flourishes. Through adversity, Koudelka is able to be communicative, interactive in school, and successful every day.
Koudelka loves cartoon shows and superhero movies. His favorite show is The Cleveland Show and he most recently saw his first movie in theaters, Venom. “It [the movie Venom] was good… I used to say that I wanted Topher Grace to play Venom in the new movie,” Koudelka said.
Sophomore Ethan Arebalo, a friend of Koudelka, describes him as, “... so funny! I see him every day and he always makes me laugh.”
Making friends hasn’t always been so effortless. Living on the autism spectrum comes with numerous obstacles. Social interactions are intricate and arduous, learning is even more strenuous than usual, and seemingly routine practices are a daily struggle. “Most people pick up on social cues, like body language and facial expressions… But many people with autism struggle with abstract thinking.” (via aleteia.org)
Interactions with Koudelka may be misconstrued as rude or impolite, however there are no ill-intentions. Working with and through the setbacks that come with Autism give Koudelka a different judgement of societal norms.
“We still have our challenges, every day is challenging… It takes him a little bit longer get to the next level.” Mrs. Koudelka said.
As the JV baseball team ran onto the field on March 22, ready to take on the SLO High Tigers, Garrett Freygang made a beeline for right field. Their muscles tensed, then loosened as they ran, and blood flowed through the boys’ veins with adrenalin and anticipation. Compared to the other 8 players on the field, Freygang looked like the average sophomore athlete, with his strong build and serious expression. But what makes him different is what’s going on inside his bloodstream.
It almost goes unnoticed that Freygang has type 1 diabetes. Much like how the Bearcats played in the baseball game, Freygang’s immune system is fighting hard and trying to win. Luckily for him, it’s succeeding. Diagnosed just before his seventh birthday, Freygang hasn’t let the disease slow him down.
“My body basically attacked my pancreas, which caused it to die, pretty much. Since [my pancreas] is no longer there, I have to have my insulin pumped.”
Freygang said. Along with the 1.25 million other Americans who have type 1 diabetes, Freygang has to deal with everyday upkeep to make sure his body is up and running all the time. He has to eat sugary foods, like cake or soda, in moderation, and he maintains his health by pumping his insulin everyday.
As he calls it, the “medicine,” or in other words, insulin, is necessary for the body to function properly. If Freygang had no insulin, his body would be dehydrated, and possibly break down its own body tissues. When these symptoms first began, it wasn’t quite a mystery why young Freygang was feeling so sick all the time. “My mom picked up on my symptoms first. I was drinking a ton of water, and I would have stomach aches constantly.”
Finally, after a year of doctors’ appointments and feeling ill, just as suspected, Freygang was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 6.
“My body basically attacked my pancreas, which caused it to die, pretty much. Since [my pancreas] is no longer there, I have to have my insulin pumped,” Freygang said.
Although his condition is easy to manage most of the time, there are still situations that cause a scare. Some are worse than others, but any time when Freygang’s blood sugar gets too low for a couple hours or more, it’s easy for things to begin to go south. A diabetic’s blood sugar is supposed to be around 120, but depending on how much exercise he gets or what he’s eating, it tends to fluctuate.
“My blood sugar had been low for about 12 hours. I had to be transferred to Sierra Vista [a hospital in San Luis Obispo],” Freygang said when referring to a particularly bad scenario. “I had to stay there for about two days.”
”My family has helped me and taught me how to deal with it,” Freygang said. As a kid, it was hard to understand why he needed so much extra help and attention. With countless trips to the nurse in elementary school and eyes on him at all times, things could get a little crazy.
“[My family] helps me manage.” When he was young, Freygang’s family helped count his carbs and give him the the correct amount of insulin. Back then, he had to use syringes to inject insulin into his body. Now Freygang uses a pump to get insulin. He programs the amount of carbs he’s going to eat before meals into the pump and then it injects just the right amount for him.
Now, years later, Freygang has adjusted to fitting diabetes in with his active lifestyle. He plays baseball, walks his dog, and hangs out with his friends, just like any other teenager. Having a disability such as diabetes hasn’t held Freygang back in the slightest. “Garrett has always had a really good attitude about about his diabetes” close friend Wrynn Calagna said.
Freygang’s diabetes has shaped his life, for better or for worse; he wouldn’t be who he is today without it. He balances his advantages and disadvantages, with his head held high, his heart full of satisfaction and his blood flowing with insulin.
“Garrett has always had a really good attitude about his diabetes,” Calagn said.
Special Olympics is a national organization that allows high school students with disabilities to compete in many different sports for victory and recognition throughout their high school career. With the support of high school students at PRHS, the Special Olympic athletes aspire to be stronger and confident in playing sports. Every Thursday during tutorial, Special Olympic students practice for scheduled events in fall, winter, and spring with a ¨buddy¨ from the high school. These ¨buddy¨ volunteers work with, and help inspire teens with intellectual and physical disabilities to involve themselves in team sports.
During the fall, Special Olympic athletes and their “buddies” practice for the Special Olympic Bocce and Soccer Tournament. During the winter months, the athletes practice for the Special Olympic Unified Basketball Tournament, and Cheer Team; and during the spring, athletes prepare for the Special Olympic Track Meet. At least twice a week they spend over an hour during the course of the school year to strengthen their skills as a team and practice individual techniques.
Every athlete is excited for practices, not only for the sport, but also to see their “buddies,” who encourage, inspire, and shine a light in the special olympic athletes lives. Every event includes much cheering and enthusiasm for the Special Olympic athletes, but takes a lot to put on. Hours and weeks of preparation is vital for the events to take shape, and without the help of all the student and parent volunteers, managers, and teachers it would not be possible.
Practices are scheduled, t-shirts are ordered, and planning is required by the many coordinators. After all of the work and effort to put the event on, athletes and participants cheer through the event, play strong, and overall have a great time. Special Olympics encourages all students at PRHS to participate in an event bigger than themselves and learn the values shattering disabilities by enabling themselves to partake in sports.