A pair of honorary guest speakers is scheduled to visit with and educate local folks on the education and care of children with special needs next week.


Dr. Karen Gaffney and Dr. Jennifer Kurth have been invited to share their stories at a fundraiser event for Trinity Heights Respite Care (THRC) at 7 p.m. Oct. 9 at Trinity Heights United Methodist Church, 1200 Boyd Ave.


“Both them are going to talk about inclusion in education,” said Connie Rickard, director of THRC. “It is very new to this area. They will speak about the results of inclusion and what we can do to promote it, and better understand it.”


Diagnosed with Down syndrome at a young age, Gaffney is living proof of the capabilities such students possess.


Gaffney became the first person with Down syndrome to receive an honorary doctorate degree when the University of Portland bestowed her with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree from the University of Portland in 2013.


She is currently a touring speaker championing the journey to full inclusion as an advocate for people with Down syndrome. While Gaffney remembers battling exclusion early in her life, especially in high school, she also remembers the boost of inclusive education.


“Inclusion is very important for us,” Gaffney said. “We need all children to be included in a regular classroom setting like I have. It has helped me learn, grow and thrive in our community. We are all more alike than we are different. I want people to know that.”


An accomplished distance swimmer, she has earned two Special Olympics gold medals and swam multiple mile spans of Lake Tahoe, Boston Harbor and the San Francisco Bay.


Gaffney uses her athletic accomplishments to highlight the abilities of others through education and programs like THRC.


“It is important to reach out to every possible service available for them. … We want parents in our community to hear success from people who have grown up with special needs and living a fulfilled life,” Rickard said.


Inclusive education means providing supports and services to students in age-appropriate education classrooms rather than a separate learning environment.


Kurth is an assistant professor in the Dept. of Special Education at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. She works with low-incidence disabilities and those requiring more extensive and comprehensive support needs.


“I'm looking forward to sharing some information about the historical practices and assumptions that have guided special education as we see it today,” Kurth said. “Leading a discussion of how those antiquated practices and assumptions can be reimagined to really embrace the true capacity of all students.”  


Kurth works with teacher preparation, creating inclusive instructional activities and works to eliminate policy practices limiting access for students with low-instance disabilities.


Respite care providers like THRC step in to provide relief for parents tasked with the additional responsibilities of caring for a special needs child.


“Caring for a special needs child is 24/7,” Rickard said. “Every day I am thankful I am able to help them.”


THRC volunteers and respite care providers go to homes and care for children, teach classes. The organization also offers a parents’ day out the third Saturday of each month when parents can drop children off at Trinity Heights United Methodist Church.


Rickard said anyone can get involved.