Framed family photographs, plaques, medals and homemade artwork compete for space on the walls of the Haddad family home. Shane Haddad is particularly proud of the wall that leads to his children’s bedrooms: three smiling portraits in full high school cap and gown.
“We had a dream that our kids would be graduating, successful and important people in society and they’ve become just that.”
It’s a testament to a life of hard work and a constant battle to defy the expectations of others.
Growing up in Regina in the 1960s and 1970s as a people with intellectual disabilities, Shane and his wife, Brenda, both had to fight for basic human rights.
“People were calling us ‘retards’ growing up; ‘not being able to amount to much.'”
So many people are challenging in saying, ‘Well, you are different, why should you have children?’ They should be telling people, ‘Yeah, you should have children but how can we support you?’– Shane Haddad
At the time, the local school board said it didn’t have the proper resources to teach Shane. He was forced to leave his family and spend four years at a school run by nuns in Edmonton. Ultimately, he learned to read and earned his Grade 9.
Sports have always played a really important role in Shane’s life, and he can credit the Special Olympics for introducing him to Brenda.
She was attracted to his honesty and said “he let me be myself.”
The couple decided to get married, despite the misgivings of her parents.
“A lot of people said, you can’t do this. You can’t be normal like everybody else. They were thinking things, but they didn’t always say things. You could see it in their eyes and face,” said Brenda.
Her parents worried that Shane wouldn’t be able to adequately support their daughter.
“We basically told Brenda’s mom and dad that we were getting married on May 20, 1989, and show up or don’t bother, but that’s the date,” said Shane.
They newlyweds were excited when they became pregnant in the first year of marriage. They had the first of three children, all of whom have special needs, according to Shane. He said their doctor was encouraging and arranged for a parent aid to come to their home and help out a couple of times a week to teach some parenting skills.
It’s a support Shane said would be helpful for any new parent.
The Haddads always knew they’d be great parents; what they needed to fight was society’s expectations of what was possible for people with intellectual disabilities.
According to Inclusion Saskatchewan, an organization dedicated to the inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities, people with special needs having children is still quite rare. Shane said this will continue to be the case until there is a fundamental shift in how our society functions.
“I think because so many people are challenging in saying, ‘Well, you are different, why should you have children?’ They should be telling people, ‘Yeah, you should have children but how can we support you?'”
Brenda said one of the biggest lessons she’s learned in parenting is that it’s OK to not know everything and it’s OK to ask for help if you don’t understand.
“You don’t try and solve it on your own.”
Shane had hoped to become a high school janitor, but that required a Grade 12. Doors were repeatedly shut in his face.
“No one would hire me and give me a legitimate chance to make a living,” he said.
Out of necessity, he started his own yard care business.
Shane and Brenda also fought to make sure their children had the access to resources in their local school that they had been denied growing up.
“We wanted him to be in the neighbourhood school, inclusion where he could be with his friends and he doesn’t have to uproot every three years and go to a different school and maybe not have very many friends because of it,” said Shane.
The children were taught from a young age to “see the ability, not the disability.” The family motto “never give up” adorns bedroom walls on handwritten posters, and it’s lived out by every member of the family.
In Grade 8, their oldest son, Tyler, desperately wanted to go to Cochrane High School, but he was told he’d need to raise his reading level by six grades. He got a tutor, and did.
Their youngest child, Whitney, struggled to get her driver’s licence.
“And every time she came back and she was crying because she was so disappointed in herself, and I kept telling her, believe in yourself and sooner or later you’ll do it,” said Shane.
On the fifth attempt, Whitney came home with a big smile on her face.
Society had already lit a match under us with, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. I can do this. I can do that, look at me now.– Shane Haddad
The family hasn’t just advocated for their own members. Shane has been involved in groups representing people with intellectual disabilities. He served as president of People First of Canada. The family has continued to be heavily involved in the Special Olympics, competing in games all over the world.
In high school, Tyler served as a peer support worker.
“They knew they could talk to me because I wouldn’t judge them,” he said.
And when a 21-year old Tyler came home with the news that his girlfriend was pregnant, the family supported the young couple. When it ended after a year, Tyler moved back in with his parents and they welcomed his daughter, Rylie, into the household.
The eight-year-old proudly shows off her own awards in the bedroom that used to belong to her father, smiling largely as she points to one for courage she received from her school.
The handwritten message “Never give up. You can do this!” greet her every time she enters her room.
It’s a way of approaching life that Rylie was born into.
“For us it was easy, because society had already lit a match under us with, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. I can do this. I can do that, look at me now,” said Shane.
Beautiful Mess is a series that aims to glean wisdom from parents. Read other pieces here.
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