Story and video by Jo Mathis/AAPS District News
When Huron High School senior Austin Shepherd recently received a “Yes I Can” award from the Michigan Council for Exceptional Children (MCEC) this summer, he wasn’t nervous to deliver an acceptance speech at the state conference.
Not only is he used to making his voice heard, he loves nothing better than advocating for others with disabilities.
“That’s sort of been my calling card,” said Austin, a 6-foot-3 Huron High School senior. “Yes, I have a disability. But that doesn’t mean I’m somebody who should be on the outside. All it means is that my vision is just not as good as the average person’s vision. I don’t have to sit around and not do anything. I can do great things in my community and in this world as a whole.”
Austin, who is legally blind, has 20/200 visual acuity. He has has central scotomas that restrict his visual field.
Austin has attended AAPS since kindergarten, where he has been enrolled in general education classes, as well as a variety of supplementary services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, services from a teacher for the visually impaired and orientation and mobility services.
“It’s been a long journey,” said Austin, who will graduate from Huron High School next spring. “I’ve been through a lot and done a lot since I’ve been in school.”
As he said in his acceptance speech:
“I have a message: ‘Don’t be afraid to talk to others about your disability. It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something that you need to go around thinking, `Oh man. This sucks. I have a disability. What the hell am I going to do?’ Instead, what you need to do is be strong. You need to educate your community.”
Austin was one of six winners from throughout the state of Michigan to win the “Yes I Can” award, which honors students with disabilities who excel.
In addition, he was invited to speak about his self-advocacy journey at the August Michigan Association of Administrators of Special Education (MAASE) Summer Institute.
Kathy Christensen, Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) Certified Orientation & Mobility Specialist (COMS) has been Austin’s orientation and mobility instructor since he was in preschool, and was the one who nominated him for the “Yes I Can” award.
“If every individual could possess just a fraction of Austin’s enthusiasm and desire to make his community a better place, we would have a much happier village,” she said.
Christensen said she can’t say enough about Austin.
“He’s so much fun, loves to laugh, is super smart, extremely compassionate, and a very gentle, kind and loving person to everyone he meets,” she said.
Austin, who plays the vibraphone in one of Community High School jazz bands, will graduate in the spring from Huron High School. He’s on the National Honor Society, a sports announcer for freshman and JV basketball and varsity soccer. He’s worked on Project Unify, Link Crew, Challenge Day, and Be the Change Club. And his resume of extracurricular community activities is hefty, as well.
His mother Amy is rightfully proud of her youngest son.
“Austin is such a blessing to our family,” she says. “His passion for life, willingness to persevere and compassionate heart bring us such joy. As parents, we set high expectations from the start, relied on the expertise of teachers, and utilized community resources. We incorporated the `Yes, I Can’ message in our lives and he embraced it.”
Austin is deciding between a few colleges, with Kalamazoo College, the University of Arizona and the University of Denver near the top of the list right now.
One thing’s clear: Austin hopes to pursue a career in psychology or social work or another helping profession.
“I really want to spend my life helping people and helping people deal with whatever they’re dealing with. That’s just kind of my calling. I want to help people feel better and happier. That’s my goal.”