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Success Stories >> Mat McCollough’s Story

Mat McCollough's Photo

Mat McCollough, in his mid-thirties, is a graduate of James Madison University and has a master's degree in public administration from American University. After working for the federal government and in the nonprofit world, he is now the director of the DC Developmental Disabilities Council. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age two and given rehabilitation services from the start, he was mainstreamed in middle and high school. He was adept at academics but faced challenges in establishing his identity and a niche in the social community.

Medical and Health

I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when I was two. My father was in the Air Force at the time, stationed in Dayton, Ohio and then Sacramento, California. My parents placed me in rehab right away, so I got speech, physical, and occupational therapy. I believe that the early intervention services I received when I was a toddler is the reason why I am doing so well today.

Education

I went to a specialized school in California until I was eight, when my father left the Air Force. I spent half my day in academics and the other half was spent in therapy. In 1984, we moved to Stafford, Virginia, south of DC. The county had a specialized school for kids with disabilities, but my parents wanted me to go to the local school. I was fully mainstreamed, but I continued to receive therapy when the others went to music and P.E. It took the teachers a while to understand that my parents wanted me to get the same quality of education as everybody else. I was treated as if I had cognitive issues. For example, if the other kids were given 15 new words to learn, I would get 10. In the second grade I could do arithmetic but I still couldn't read on grade level because the teachers weren't asking as much of me as they were of students without disabilities. So, my mother requested to hold me back to repeat the second grade. I didn't understand why at the time, but looking back today, it was the right thing to do. I still had that stigma; my teachers didn't necessarily know what to do with me. They didn't know what I was capable of. My parents made me get my homework done before I could do fun things. When I was in primary and middle school, the laws weren't clear on how to do mainstreaming. I was still in a wheelchair then and definitely the odd man out. I had to leave the classroom for therapy, and trying to be socially acceptable was difficult.

I went to James Madison University. College was a whole new world for me. You hear about how much fun kids have in high school, but college was where I had fun. There was less pressure and more social acceptance. The one thing that my parents really instilled in me as a child was getting involved in the community, doing community service and giving back. I was in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. One thing I wanted to do was to broaden people's mindset about people with disabilities through more interaction. I was asked to start a Best Buddies Chapter at JMU, where people with intellectual disabilities are paired with college students, so my college peers would understand that people with disabilities want the same things as them: they want to work; they want to be loved; they want their own lives. I had a lot of fun in college, because I had a real sense of who I was and I learned how to connect with others effectively. I majored in political science. My parents said, "Why are you doing that? You can't make a living with a poli sci major." But I thought it would prepare me for a career in helping others. My mother encouraged me to minor in education, and the experience gave me an appreciation for how important it was for students with disabilities to navigate the educational system and get the help they need. That's part of why I am so headstrong about making sure people with disabilities receive a good academic-based education; not only because they deserve it, but this path needs to be taken, so these individuals can get decent jobs later. Having a good quality of life starts with getting the best possible educational foundation, and it starts early in life, too.

Social Development

It was a constant battle trying to find out who I was as a person during my adolescent years. You can only tell your parents so much. They just wanted me to excel in something, do well in academics, and sure enough I did. But there is another element to going to school, fitting in and being part of a group of friends. I was socially awkward. I wasn't cool, and I didn't understand why the other kids would be mean to someone with a disability. I was competitive and could be stubborn, but in terms of being respected and accepted by my peers, that was definitely a struggle. I couldn't say much to my parents because they would complain to the school and that would only make matters worse.

I found out that most students with disabilities go through some mental anguish trying to survive inside the regular classrooms. It's a very competitive environment; you're taught you have to be best at whatever you do. When I was growing up, I thought there needed to be a better balance between being competitive, getting good grades, and still being socially understanding. Middle school was really rough for me. I was not the ideal kid. I wasn't healthy, and I made some relationship mistakes. I drove my parents up the wall. I didn't have a real sense of who I was at the time and I wanted to establish myself as a unique person, but at that age you are still dependent on your parents. Trying to understand what independence really is and to be a responsible teenager is a challenge for any child, and having a disability is just added pressure.

My academic work was really my safety net, my fallback, because that was the only area I could really excel in. But going to high school, I realized that I needed to assert myself as a person. My mom always told me that first impressions really matter. I realized that in middle school I had let other kids dictate who I was as a person and those perceptions were wrong most of the time. I tried to come to grips with whom I was as a person with a disability and how I could change those mindsets. Yeah, I am an individual with a disability, but that is only one element of who I am. It doesn't define me as a person. It takes a lot for teenagers to go through the thought process of understanding who they are, and kids with disabilities have to grow up faster than others. If you don't, you will find yourself lost along the way while being very dependent on other people instead of becoming an actual adult. So, in high school, I wanted people to respect me and understand that I wouldn't allow people to walk over me. I'm a nice guy, a kind person, but I didn't want them to take advantage of me. That was a skill I had to learn. I had to be strong. For instance in eighth grade, it didn't matter how well I did in class. I was considered a nerd. But the same students that gave me a hard time in middle school later elected me their student body president in high school, so I knew I had made an impact. I had to learn how to win them over and earn their respect, show them my disability didn't define me as a person. Once I learned that skill and learned how to communicate, that's when I started making headway with my peers.

The supports available to students with disabilities who are mainstreamed don't include help with this kind of problem. You just have to learn it on your own. To me, the challenge wasn't about academics; it was about social connection and interaction, so that I could be successful in the kind of life that I have now. Understanding how to work in teams and knowing where the other person is coming from really matters. There is a real strength in the diversity of people. You should embrace the strength that comes from mixing different backgrounds, ethnicities, and so forth. In fact, having a disability can be a bridge to get to know people from different cultures because you have something in common.

My advice for anybody growing up with a disability is to get a sense of who you are as a person. There is so much social pressure to conform and fit in, but that process works against people with disabilities because we are automatically viewed as different. So go ahead and try to fit in, but there is some real strength and comfort in being different. You can start dictating what you want to do, but you need to use your voice. It's a really scary proposition for a lot of people, with and without disabilities, to stand on their own two feet and not compromise who they are.

Recreation

I like to hang out with friends and family. I like to listen to music; it keeps me sane. Without music I would not be a very happy person. I like rock music, especially bands with a message. But the band has to write their lyrics and play their own instruments—none of this synthesized stuff or happy, sappy pop music.

Independent Living

Having good mentors is very important in making successful transitions in the working world; someone who will give you a straight answer even if it's not pleasant and tell you, "This is what you need to work on." It may or may not be someone with a disability. One of my first mentors was my grandfather on my mother's side, who was disabled while serving in World War II and had a sense of what I was going through when I was growing up. He taught me that respect and integrity meant a lot—you should never compromise your own integrity or character. He also taught me that you have to be a strong person to live in a world that isn't meant for you. My mother was a big influence too. Having been raised by a Marine, she believed in discipline, and whenever I ever screwed up, she wouldn't allow me to take an easy way out. It was all about being disciplined and getting the job done. Growing up in the McCollough household was not a pleasant experience for me at times. I knew my friends weren't going through this, but it was definitely beneficial. It affects the way I interact with people. I don't take them for granted. I always respect people regardless of their background or their socioeconomic status. It doesn't matter if you're highly educated or come from a lower economic standard. We're all the same; we're all trying to succeed. We're all connected and trying to benefit and learn from one another.

Employment

When I got out of college, my first job was with the Department of Justice. I realized that there weren't too many people with disabilities in the work environment, and I wanted to learn why that was the case. I wanted to learn more about the disability community, so I went to the nonprofit world for five years, working as a project manager for the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, and I earned a master's degree in public administration from American University during my time with AUCD. When I identify an issue, I look at it from a policy point of view and try to understand how public policy is being implemented at the state and local levels. More importantly, I want to understand how policy impacts the community and people directly, because I am interested in figuring out how to make the policy work for the community members in the best way possible.

For a time, I was the communications director for the DC Office of Disability Rights, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance office for the District government. I got the word out to the disability community that ODR existed to protect their civil rights and how the agency could benefit them. Currently, I am director of the DC Developmental Disabilities Council, a federally mandated office that promotes process changes, capacity building, and advocacy activities to advance independence, productivity, and community inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Eventually, I would like to have a wife and family. I have thought about law school, but it costs a lot of money. I might to stay in public life and even run for office, but probably someplace that has more direct representation than DC.


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