Parents of children with special needs are often told the many things their children will never do, or never be. So it's little wonder the career goals of persons with disabilities were once limited to bagging groceries or stocking supermarket shelves.
But children of special needs also dream of becoming artists or dancers -- even Hollywood stars -- making it imperative that parents and professionals recognize and foster the creative gifts of special-needs children much as they would any other talented child.
Gail Williamson, Hollywood's first disabilities coordinator for the award-winning programs, "ER" and "Touched by an Angel," helps make careers in the entertainment business a reality for actors with disabilities.
She lives in Los Angeles, but her work with special needs inclusion on behalf of disabled actors has had an impact worldwide. Williamson weaves a fascinating tale about growing up amid old-style Hollywood glamour, in a city where she grew from being the unsure mother of a disabled child to an award-winning dynamo.
Her career took creative root in 1979 with the birth of her son, Blair, who has Down syndrome. The spunky Williamson refused to allow the opinions of others to dictate her son's future, but even she admits she once underestimated his potential.
When a school psychologist asked if she had considered acting lessons for Blair, then 5 years old, the 1999 National Mother of the Year thought the woman was joking.
"As far as I was concerned, Blair was just a little show-off," she says.
When a second school psychologist posed the same question, the remark seemed more than a coincidence.
"I had no idea what I should do about the comments about Blair's acting potential," Williamson explains, "but I felt I should pursue them."
At the age of 10, Blair was asked by the Special Olympics to audition for a 30-second national commercial for Procter and Gamble. He was the youngest athlete to audition, walking away with a part that required four hours of running to shoot a 30-second commercial.
Blair was on his way to becoming a professional actor, while his mother pursued an exciting new career in the world of entertainment. You can find Blair's professional credits on the Internet Movie Database, just enter his name, Blair Williamson.
Williamson spent 12 years as the Talent Development and Industry Relations Coordinator of the Media Access Office (M.A.O.) in Hollywood. She worked tirelessly to increase job opportunities for actors with disabilities.
M.A.O. is a non-profit organization of two government units: the California State Employment Development Department and the California Governor's Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities.
Williamson, whose phone calls are now taken by many of Hollywood's top producers, is committed to making the big dreams of actors with disabilities come true.
"I'm riding the wave of disability awareness that exists in Hollywood," she says with pride, "and I'm going to ride it well until the next big wave comes along."
Today, Williamson works as the Executive Director of the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles and runs a private website for actors, entertainers and visual artists who have Down syndrome. You can contact her via her website. She continues to provide expert consultation to producers on inclusion of disabilities issues and characters as well as helping to cast actors with Down syndorme and other developmental disabilities.
For more information about the Media Access Office contact 818-409-0448, (818) 752-1196 or (818) 509-5614 TTY.
Judy Winter is the author of Breakthrough Parenting for Children with Special Needs: Raising the Bar of Expectations and co-founder of the Eric 'RicStar' Winter Music Therapy Camp at Michigan State University. To learn more, visit: www.judywinter.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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