Over 30 years ago, Stephen English returned to Chicago from Boston with a curly-topped, redheaded toddler, Jason, and their journey together began. Despite the fact that the boy had received a poor prognosis from medical professionals, Stephen was optimistic. While the experts told him that Jason would likely never speak and definitely would not read or write, Stephen saw a child who was curious and babbled non-stop—his words simply had yet to be understood.
Although Stephen promised his son that he would raise him to be as independent as possible, his optimism was tempered by apprehension—specifically of the setbacks that parents of “children who are different” fear. During their first week together, Stephen and Jason went for a walk where the boy encountered a huge boulder. Like most little boys, he simply had to climb it. Stephen recalled, “He fell and cried; he couldn’t do it. I picked him up, consoled him, and kissed his ‘boo-boos.’ When I put him down, he went back to the rock to climb again.” As a father, Stephen feared that Jason would come to believe that he couldn’t climb the boulder; that he would accept defeat. It was at that moment Stephen’s optimism was affirmed, as Jason kept climbing until he succeeded.
Jason encountered and conquered many “boulders” during childhood, adolescence, and young-adulthood. By 2008, Jason lived in a first-floor apartment in a two-flat building, with Stephen and his partner Ryan living in the apartment upstairs. “We all pretended Jason was independent, but he wasn’t,” Stephen reflected. “I knew that he needed more independence so we could see his strengths, needs, and problem-solving abilities, but I was terrified.”
Stephen then turned to Center for Independent Futures. He and Jason visited, met the staff, and discussed the philosophy and services. Jason also saw one of the available housing options, although he insisted that he didn’t want to move. Then, on the way home, Stephen experienced a turning point with his son. Jason was aggravated that the nearest train station wasn’t accessible for those who use wheelchairs or crutches. From this frustration was born a moment of inspiration: Center for Independent Futures and the community needed Jason to teach people in Evanston about disability rights.
Today, Jason lives in his own apartment and meets with a Life Skills Tutor twice a week. He volunteers and does his own grocery shopping. And those who said Jason would never read or write should know he has created two books of poetry, thanks to the support of Barry Siegel, a Center for Independent Futures tutor and poet who leads a monthly creative writing group. He even fulfilled a wish to meet his biological parents. In 2010 he flew to Florida to see his father, grandmother, and great-grandmother and then, six weeks later, went to Massachusetts to meet his mother and sisters. These trips to visit family have become annual events in Jason’s life as a happy, social, and independent man.
Stephen English made good on his promise to his son, but he couldn’t do it alone. “Jason would have never been able to accomplish his hopes and dreams of independence without the staff of Center for Independent Futures,” Stephen shares. With the skills and resources now at his disposal, Jason can conquer any boulders in his path.