A Powerful Message for Youth With Disabilities

by Kathy Martinez on February 1, 2014 · 0 comments

On Sunday, people across the country will take part in an American tradition: watching the Super Bowl on television. This year, one player in particular has captured my interest: the Seattle Seahawks’ Derrick Coleman, a person with a disability who demonstrates, in a big way, that it’s what people can do that matters. He’s a great example of why we in the Office of Disability Employment Policy work each day to ensure more people with disabilities have the opportunity to rise to the top of their game.

The first legally deaf person to be part of an NFL offense, Coleman was diagnosed with his disability when he was three years old. He reads lips and uses hearing aids, both on and off the field. In a recent advertisement, he delivers a compelling message about his experiences growing up as a child with a disability and achieving his dream of becoming a professional football player.

His words inspired a nine-year-old girl named Riley Kovalcik, who also has a hearing impairment, to reach out to Coleman. On her own initiative, she wrote a letter wishing him luck in the Jan. 20 playoff game and noting the things they have in common — not just their disability, but also their love of sports.

The text of Riley's letter: Dear Derrick Coleman (my inspiration), I know how you feel. I also have hearing aids. Just try your best. I have faith in you, Derrick. Good job on January 20th game. Go Seattle Seahawks! Here are things we have in common. I wear two hearing aids. I love sports. Other things are I’m an identical twin and my twin wears one hearing aid, too.

Riley Kovalcik's letter to Derrick Coleman

She also shared that that she has a twin who also wears a hearing aid. (Upon hearing this part of the story, I felt a real connection with Riley, because I also am a person with a disability who has a sister with the same disability.) When Riley’s dad read the letter, he snapped a photo and posted it on Twitter. It quickly circulated and found its way to Coleman, who responded. If you read the exchange, it’s hard to discern which is more inspiring!

Text of Derrick Coleman's letter: Dear Miss Kovalcik, Thanks for the letter. Really was great hearing from a friend who I have so much in common with. I appreciate you rooting for the Seahawks and me and hope you continue to do so when we play in the Superbowl!! I want you to know that I always try my best in everything I do and have faith in you and your twin sister, too. Even though we wear hearing aids, we can still accomplish our goals and dreams! If you or your family are ever in Seattle, I hope we can all get together and play some sports or games! Take Care, Derrick L. Coleman Jr.

Derrick Coleman's letter to Riley Kovalcik

This heartwarming story reinforces the importance of what I like to call “look-alike mentors” for young people with disabilities — something that lies at the heart of our work at ODEP. Sure, Coleman, a 23-year-old fullback who is 6 feet tall and weighs 233 pounds, doesn’t literally look a whole lot like his young fan. But when Riley looks at Coleman, she sees a person who, like her, has a disability and has reached the highest level possible in his chosen profession. That’s a powerful image. At ODEP, it is our goal to see more role models with disabilities like Coleman achieve their dreams — whatever they may be — so that more youth with disabilities like Riley and her sister grow up knowing that they can, too.

Editor’s note: ABC’s Good Morning America has more about this story. Watch the video here.

Kathy Martinez is the assistant secretary of labor for disability employment policy.

 

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