Onna’s personality is perfectly summed up by her parents’ nickname for her: Dancing Iron Baby.
“She’d been through so much, but her little feet, as a baby, they were always dancing,” explains her mother Marija. “She was always moving along, pushing.”
But while the nickname is perfect now, it’s one that Marija and her husband might not have imagined at first. Because when Onna was born with a heart condition and Down syndrome, Marija remembers, “The whole experience with the diagnoses is initially very negative. You’re not told, ‘Oh, your child has a Trisomy 21,’” she says in a chipper way. “You’re told,” -- now she shifts her voice to a hushed, ultra-serious tone -- “‘I’m so sorry. Your child has this diagnosis.’ So your expectations are not very high.”
It took meeting a social worker for Marija’s expectations to begin to change. “She didn’t talk about Onna’s future problems and things that she won’t be able to do, but things she will be able to do. She just said, ‘You know what? Let’s talk about the abilities of this beautiful girl you have.’”
The same kind of emphasis on ability drew Marija to Northwest Center Kids, where Onna, now three, attends Early Learning. “It felt like the right place for us right away,” Marija says. “At the time, she couldn’t walk yet, couldn’t pull herself into a stand without support. But in the first half an hour at Northwest Center Kids, she was doing it over and over, pulling up without support, because she was just watching what the other kids were doing. It was just, ‘I can do this!’”
Just Like Any Other Child
Marija credits Northwest Center’s inclusive model for the progress that Onna continues to make.
“Onna plays alongside children that don’t have disabilities, and children that don’t have disabilities get a chance to play with children that do. Both sides learn very valuable lessons. You feel that your child is included, that your child is just like any other child and will be treated just like any other child.”
Stefanie Eilers, a Special Educator on Northwest Center’s Early Intervention team, agrees. “We see all children as exactly that -- children,” she says. “Every child is a unique individual with things to learn and things to contribute. They are not different because of a diagnosis or delay that they may have; they are just different because everyone is different and has their own strengths and weaknesses. And that's not just some slogan or catchphrase we say for interviews and videos and such; that is a belief that I think is firmly held by all of our staff here.”
Learning and play activities at Northwest Center Kids are developed for children of all development levels, then scaled as necessary, so kids like Onna participate fully in every class.
“Therapists teach us as the parents how to support our daughter better and help her reach her potential,” Maria says. “But the teachers are included in the care, so that they apply therapy throughout the day. We all work together, and they’re so fantastic in their approach to Onna and their approach to us. They are so excited about Onna’s progress. Almost as much as we are.”
Inclusion from the Beginning
Today, the Dancing Iron Baby is still pushing forward. “At the start, we had doubts that she would talk, walk, that she would have friends to play with, simple things like that,” Marija says. “And everything has happened. She is healthy. She is walking, running, jumping. She is talking, uses sign language as well; even more than most typical children. We have very high expectations now that she can reach far and do as much as other kids can, and she still surprises me, even now - she does more, she pushes herself. She’s a very, very determined little girl.”
Soon, Onna should have yet another friend at Northwest Center Kids: her baby brother.Â “I’m expecting, and this baby boy will come to Northwest Center whether he needs any extra services or not,” says Marija. “Because this is a beautiful place to bring him up and to teach him how to respect differences.”
She sums it up this way: “Our children live in one world, they share it. Why wait until they’re older to talk about how to make life better for adults and individuals with special needs when you can just include the children from the beginning?”
Our services for children provide early intervention, inclusive early childhood education, and after school programs. For more information about Northwest Center Kids and how you can get involved, contact us.
This story was originally published as part of Northwest Center's 50th anniversary project: 50 Stories Worth Sharing
Northwest Center is passionate about equal rights, anti-ableism, and full inclusion for people with disabilities. Thank you for reading.