Saturday, March 16 was a rainy, chilly and windy day in Chicago. Though unpleasant, the weather didn't stop Michael Bucci and hundreds of others from competing in the Annual St. Paddy's Day 5K Run in Lincoln Park. The St. Paddy's Day event was his first 5K. Michael started training in late 2012. Leading up to the race, he jogged around an indoor track at a local YMCA on Wednesdays and Saturdays and ran several days a week in PE class. Sporting a Chicago Blackhawks jacket as he crossed the 5K mark, Michael finished the race faster than he expected. "Excited," Michael said, when asked how he felt after finishing the race.
Michael Bucci and his mentor Christine Scully
Christine Scully, a marathon runner and disability advocate who works at LCM Architects, ran with Michael on March 16. The two met when Michael was a freshman at Von Steuben High School. They were paired up together as Mentor and Mentee through the Disability Justice Mentoring Collective, a project launched in 2010 by Access Living. The Collective connects adults with middle school and high school students with disabilities. Michael and Christine (both pictured in image below this paragraph) formed a bond in 2010 that has grown strong over the past three years. Whether Michael's goal was athletic, such as the St. Paddy's Day 5K, social, or academic, Christine has often been there to support Michael.
In a letter of recommendation Christine wrote for Michael, she noted that as a freshman, Michael told her he was "disappointed in not having as many social opportunities as he had in elementary school." Throughout high school, opportunities opened up, and as a senior, Michael entered the race for Homecoming King. His campaign took a straightforward tact. He approached his peers and asked for their votes. According to Christine, "this was a huge growth from his freshman year."
After the race on March 16, Michael, his mother Elizabeth, and Christine sat in the hallway of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. As Michael and Christine wound down from the race, Michael reflected on his time in high school and looked ahead toward the future.
In many ways, his experience as a teenager mirrored the experience of any other teenager. But unlike many other high school graduates preparing for college, Michael has an autism spectrum disorder. Autism hasn't prevented Michael from doing what kids his age without disabilities do, and hasn't prevented Michael from doing what he wants to do. Yet, every high school student encounters roadblocks on the path to graduation, and on the path to life after graduation. For Michael, while many challenges he faced and now faces are no different from the challenges faced by a typical student, some of those challenges are unique to disability and Autism.
Though we are taught to celebrate diversity, accepting differences, especially in high school, is not easy. No matter who we are, most of us do all we can to fit in with others. Early in his time at high school, Michael was grouped with other kids with disabilities. Separated from other students, Michael couldn't walk down the hallway by himself or eat lunch with kids from general education classes without an assistant. Because he felt isolated, when he was placed in inclusive classes Michael tried to hide his disability. He did so by not accepting certain accommodations he was entitled to, such as a note taker. Instead, he cut corners. In geometry class, he tried to memorize everything rather than learning how to solve the problems. As a result, his grades suffered. He also worried what might happen to his friends if they knew more about his disability. In some ways, Michael's attempts to fit in backfired. "I felt like I was out of place," Michael said, talking about his struggles at school.
Eventually, academic struggles made Michael and his mother realize that he had to reach out for support. He accepted help from a note taker, used more time to complete assignments, and began accepting advice from his Autism Resource Teacher. Soon, Michael recognized that the accommodations made a difference. He said he was okay with accepting accommodations "because I realized I was getting better grades by getting help." In geometry, he improved from a C average to an A. His reading also improved. Now he reads from eight to ten books a year, and in January of 2012 was accepted into the National Honor Society.
Accepting the accommodations, then doing better at school, Michael was more comfortable being himself. In that way, disability, far from hurting his friendships, strengthened them. Talking about his friends, Michael said, "When I started being myself, they liked me more." If there was any doubt, the crowning of Michael as Homecoming King confirmed their fondness for Michael. "My friends voted for me," he exclaimed. "Now I know they really like me."
In addition to helping himself, Michael also supported other students while he was at Von Steuben. Applying his own academic skills, he tutored math to other students with autism. He also spoke to students with and without disabilities about self-advocacy, stressing the importance of speaking up for yourself.
His hard work and perseverance paid off. In an awards ceremony at his high school in May, Michael received two scholarships for college. One scholarship was for excelling with a disability and one was for creating a welcoming and inclusive community for all students throughout his school. He was also recognized for four years of high honor roll and was voted "sweetest senior" by his peers.
Just more than three months after the St. Paddy's Day 5K, on June 18, Michael graduated from Von Steuben. Now, he is preparing to attend Southern Illinois University - Carbondale. When he goes to college in the fall, Michael will be on his own for the first time. "My own freedom," Michael says reflectively when asked what he is looking forward to the most about college.
He knows that independence won't be easy. Many kids, disabled and non-disabled, are overwhelmed by the responsibility that comes with independence. "It is going to be hard," Michael said. To avoid the pitfalls of freedom, Michael and his mother have been practicing independent living skills. Michael started to create his own schedule and solve his own problems. He has also been working on eating habits and menus. He plans to major in nutrition and dietetics in college.
College, and all that comes with it, may very well be challenging for Michael. But if Michael's last year at Von Steuben is any indication, he is up to the task.