Down syndrome aside, he's 'just a typical student'

Baptist Press
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Posted: Oct 29, 2010 5:15 PM
Down syndrome aside, he's 'just a typical student'
EDITOR'S NOTE: In recognition of October as "Down Syndrome Awareness Month," Baptist Press is publishing this feature on Christopher Hunnicutt of Atlanta and his parents, Chris and Marti Hunnicutt.

KENNESAW, Ga. (BP)--Christopher Hunnicutt slowly made his way across the Kennesaw State University campus from his music appreciation class to the student center, waving and smiling to everyone he encountered.

"Hey, I'm Chris," he said with a raspy voice and big grin to a taller but younger student also going his way. Christopher extended his hand for a solid handshake. "Glad to know you, Chris," the other student replied. They chatted along the way as Chris exchanged more waves and smiles to dozens of students walking past.

Some engaged the stocky young man in pleasant conversation: "Hey man, how're ya doin'? How're your classes?" Others simply responded with an encouraging smile. Students or staff, it made no difference. Christopher wanted to meet everyone as he basked in his college experience. He was beyond ecstatic just to be on campus; thrilled to be, in his words, "just a typical student."

It's impossible not to smile when meeting Christopher Hunnicutt. The other students might not know who he is unless they shared a class, but they know at first glance that there's something different about him.

23 YEARS AGO

Chris and Marti Hunnicutt, members of Briarcliff Baptist Church in Atlanta, remember the doctor's office visit nearly 23 years ago when they learned the news: Their unborn son had Down syndrome, a genetic condition that causes delays in physical and intellectual development.

"We were in the first trimester of our fourth pregnancy," Chris recounted. "We had a healthy daughter six years earlier, but then we struggled through a stillbirth and then a miscarriage as we tried for another child."

The Hunnicutts were well-aware of the potential risks, but remained hopeful.

"I was 37," Marti recalled. "The doctors had done tests that indicated the possibility of spina bifida in our child, so we agreed to an amniocentesis." Those results showed that the spina bifida concerns were unfounded, but the test was conclusive for an extra 21st chromosome in the baby's DNA. It was an unmistakable indicator that their child would likely have some cognitive delays as well as possible congenital heart, hearing and thyroid problems.

"It was a shock. I was overwhelmed with sadness," Marti said. "We were relieved that our baby didn't have spina bifida, but we weren't expecting what the doctor had to say. I lost my mother and dad between the miscarriage and stillbirth a few years before. I was emotionally drained. With this news, I felt like my heart had been pounded."

Their obstetrician was matter-of-fact about the prognosis. He had seen his share of babies born with a myriad of birth conditions, Down syndrome among them. The condition affects nearly one in 300 babies born to women over 36. The chances increase to one in 12 by age 49. Nearly 90 percent of pregnancies that involve an early diagnosis of Down syndrome are terminated, according to the National Down Syndrome Congress Center in Atlanta.

"Our doctor referred us to a genetic counselor. We met with him a few days later," Marti continued. "He was very negative. He said we probably ought to consider terminating the pregnancy, or placing him in an institution and getting on with our lives."

The counselor's words bounced off the Hunnicutts. "My head was spinning. I didn't know what it would all mean," Marti said. "We didn't know how having a child with Down syndrome would impact our lives.

"What I knew in my heart was that terminating the pregnancy was not on the table."

Chris tried to contain his anger at the counselor's advice. "I thought, 'How can he determine the value of this child?' I was outraged."

In the days that followed, Chris and Marti shared their diagnosis with other family members. "We talked to those who loved us. Several relatives indicated that terminating the pregnancy would be an acceptable option," Chris said, "yet their words rang hollow to me."

Their obstetrician had provided Chris and Marti with the name and number of another couple with a Down syndrome child -- one he had delivered several years earlier. He suggested they meet.

"We visited the family and were immediately embraced and encouraged," Chris recalled. "Cory, their son, was nearly 5 years old. In the hour we spent with him, he was more typical than different. They were a typical family. How could I make a judgment on the value of this boy's life? Or my unborn son's life? I couldn't. It became a non-decision. It was a 'get your act together and move forward' kind of thing.

"It was our choice to continue. We realized having a child with Down syndrome was a part of what our lives were going to be about. We needed to learn what to do and how to do in order to support our child."

Chris began networking, identifying resources and making contacts over the next six months. "I was doing everything I could to be ready for this young man. We hit the ground running."

OFF TO SCHOOL

By the time Christopher was 4, the Hunnicutts enrolled him in an early intervention program at a public school that included both Head Start and developmentally delayed children.

"The principal asked what my vision was for my son. I said I wanted him in a typical classroom with typical students," Chris said. "I wanted Christopher to have as typical a life as possible. It was all about inclusion. I didn't want my son segregated. If he was to have a normal life, he would need to learn with other students in an inclusive setting."

That strategy worked well in grade school but far less so in middle and high school. Chris constantly was pushing for his son to learn in a regular classroom rather than one specifically designated for special education but continually met with resistance from school officials.

"I felt Christopher would be better served learning in a contextual setting rather than a hypothetical one," Chris said. "It's just my opinion -- and I allow that every parent needs to decide how their own child is best served -- but I believe too many parents think their child will receive better services in a segregated setting. That's not necessarily so. They don't take real life into consideration."

Segregated special education classrooms are appropriate for some students with developmental disabilities, but too many schools use them as the easier path, Chris said.

"It takes a dedicated teacher to accept a developmentally challenged student in a regular classroom, even with assistance. If a teacher's heart is not in it, it doesn't work. The schools also have a financial incentive to push special needs students toward the segregated classrooms. The schools are generally paid more for them, often three times more per student than if they were in a typical classroom."

Christopher graduated from his high school when he was 18 along with his peers. He continued in a charter school for three more years, taking classes in his areas of interest: photography, art, computers, video production and piano.

As Christopher's 22nd birthday approached -- the date at which, by law, his high school career would end -- he still wanted more. A regular university, even a community college, seemed out of reach. Even schools with provisions for the disabled were beyond what he could pursue.

Meanwhile, for nearly seven years, Sheryl Arno, an Atlanta-area advocate for the developmentally disabled, had been shaping and sharing her dream for a post-secondary university program for intellectually challenged young people who yearn for the college experience.

"I talked it up with friends, colleagues, friends of friends who worked in academia -- basically anyone who would listen," Arno said. "I tried to sell the idea to four major universities in Georgia. I told them that just because someone turns 22 and gets a special education diploma from high school doesn't mean they're ready to stop learning. They needed more and the schools needed to provide it. Society would benefit from it.

"I got a lot of pats on the head and praise for the concept, but no one wanted to actually do anything," Arno said. "They always had a reason why it couldn't work. I never gave up hope, though."

Finally, in 2008, Harry Stern, director of Kennesaw State University's Global Center for Social Change, agreed to take a second look at Sheryl Arno's proposal.

The university, located just north of Atlanta, has "a reputation as being innovative and open to new ideas," Arno said. "They think out of the box. The Global Center is all about 'diversity.' A few weeks after we talked, called me and said, 'Let's do it.' It took another year to get everything and everybody lined up."

The program, KSU Academy for Inclusive Adult Education, began with the 2009 fall semester with three students. Christopher Hunnicutt was proudly one of them.

"Students take two classes each semester, with support from staff and student mentors," explained Jill Sloan, who joined the university as program coordinator after a long career with the county's special education department. "It's our mission to offer students who have developmental disabilities a two-year college experience and encourage the social growth that a university campus can provide. We can offer experiences they otherwise might never enjoy."

The academy chooses the students' first year of classes, "those we feel can help the students be better prepared for employment, as well as academics," Sloan said. Students then choose their own classes for the second year. Tuition for each semester is $3,300, exclusive of books and meals. No on-campus housing is available yet for the academy's students, but Sloan hopes to change that in the coming academic year. Until then, the students travel to and from campus by public transportation or by rides with family members.

Kennesaw State's program has accepted six new students for the 2010-11 academic year, bringing the total to nine when classes resumed in August.

"Our goal is 25 students by 2012," noted Sheryl Arno, who like Sloan and others, shares a vision to see the program replicated in all 35 colleges and universities in Georgia's higher education system. And as one of only seven states who offer such a program, other states' universities are taking notice of Kennesaw State's innovation.

"It's interesting that the big universities who essentially found all sorts of reasons to not do it six years ago are now coming on board," Arno said. "They finally acknowledged the merit in what we're doing.

"I've always believed that the higher you raise the bar, the higher these students will achieve," Arno said.

"KSU taught three students who have a developmental disability. But those three students taught 22,000 other students on campus what it means to have a developmental disability. They also taught the staff, the faculty, the cafeteria workers, everyone they came into contact with, about diversity and inclusion. These three students' lives have been forever enriched. And the 22,000, they'll never look at a person with a disability the same way they once did. It's a win-win all around."

FOCUSED & INTENT

Christopher Hunnicutt huddled with his mentor at a table in the student center, his ever-present Coca-Cola nearby, as he worked on a homework assignment for his music class. Other students hustled by on their way to and from classes, but the rush was not much of a distraction.

Focused and intent on finishing, he pushed on through the assignment with his mentor's help. When he was finished, he sighed in relief and closed his laptop computer. He was off to lunch at the university's dining center before his afternoon study time in the resource center.

This perhaps not-so-typical student was savoring every moment.

Robin Nelson is an Atlanta-area photographer and writer.

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