Ollibean  talks to self-advocate Tres Whitlock about how the NPR story in which he was featured, “Florida Charter Schools Failing Disabled Students” , has impacted him. Being part of a national story on NPR is certainly not ‘business as usual’ for most teenagers. You know, “get my homework done, text and FB my friends, talk to folks about the stand I’m taking for the civil and human rights for people with disabilities, oh yeah, maybe you caught the piece on NPR ?!? But Tres is used to boldly doing things that others might find challenging, impossible even, that’s just Tres.

The investigation by State Impact Florida and  story on NPR included Tres’ attempt to attend Pivot Charter School in Tampa. Tres is an eighteen year old high school student who had hoped to attend the school because he felt it was a good fit for him for many reasons. One, it’s computer based, and  he’s planning on becoming a game programmer, he’s already working on an app. Two, Pivot’s decreased school day of four to five hours would be less physically demanding, which would help with fatigue that goes along with Tres’ cerebral palsy. The ‘learn at your own pace” that Pivot promoted was great, too. He’d  have 24/5 access to teachers online, which was incredible since Tres communicates through an augmentative communication device.  He  figured it would be easier for him to actively participate in his education, because his physical challenges wouldn’t be an issue online. The idea of being able to interact with your teacher online, ‘at your own pace’ seemed perfect. At this charter school, students alert the teacher that they have a question by pressing a button on their computer. Again, Tres thought it would be a perfect match, everyone would be using their keyboard just like him.

Tres and his mother, Tonya Whitlock, told me how they toured the school with the principal in July.  Tres loved it , just as he thought he would. She showed him the computer programming and how it worked, even said how much this particular school offered him that traditional public schools could not.  Tres spent the next month and a half excited about starting this Pivot Charter school.

The week before school started,  the Whitlocks were told that Tres could not attend Pivot– because they did not have someone that could help Tres go to the restroom if needed. Pivot is a public charter school, receives public funds and is subject to the same laws that protect individuals with disabilities, ADA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and F.A.P.E.  I called Pivot Principal, Carmela David, but she would not discuss anything regarding Tres.

Not having Tres at their school was Pivot’s loss, Tres is an amazing addition to any group. He’s insightful, funny, charismatic and smart. All these things are evident the first time you meet Tres, or hear an interview with him, or read an article about him. Josh Holmes obviously saw this, since he took the time to reach out to a kid he’d never met. Jim Shepard of Bioware Austin saw it, too. (more about this from Tres, below).  These men took time out to let a total stranger know they believe in him and to offer Tres guidance and support in achieving his dreams of becoming a game programmer.  Shouldn’t ALL schools be offering this same guidance and support for ALL students.

I’m in awe of Tres Whitlock. When so many high school kids are worrying about saying the wrong thing, wearing the wrong clothes, Tres had the courage to not only say things that people may not want to hear, but to say them with conviction and on NPR. Here’s my Q & A with Tres.

I asked Tres about the reactions he’s had from the story airing? Tres typed the words I’m sure most 12 to 50 year old gamers would do anything to be able to write.

Tres: “Awesome things. Josh Holmes, the game programmer who created Halo at 343 Industries and Jim Shepard, a gameplay programmer at Bioware Austin currently working on a Massively Multiplayer Online game set in the Star Wars universe called The Old Republic, both contacted me to help me with my dream of becoming a game programmer. I was so excited when they emailed me.”

Lauri: Can you tell me a little bit about the app you’ve been developing, or is that confidential?

Tres: My wheelchair racing app will be awesome. It will be wheelchairs designed by the user that can be raced through different terrains and courses.

Lauri: Is  there was anything you want to clarify or expound upon from the NPR story?

Tres: Since the story I have made more friends at my high school. It is not as bad.

Lauri: Tres, is there anything you’d like people to know about you?

Tres: I am a Christian. My faith in God helps me deal with things.

Lauri: Who is your hero?

Tres: John Cena is my hero. He never gives up…

Lauri: What is your favorite sport?

Tres: Basketball..

Lauri:I know not everyone happens to be around people that communicate using AAC or typing. One thing we are doing at Ollibean is starting some of the dialogues to dispel some of the misconceptions. That being said, any thoughts or advise on the best way to have a conversation with someone that uses AAC? 

Tres: Don’t be afraid to just walk up to me.  Don’t speak to me like I am a baby. Speak to me like I am smart.

Lauri: If you had a new teacher or professor what would you like them to know about you? Hopefully this will help other students that use AAC, too.

Tres: I want the teacher to know I am smart and treat me like the other students.

Lauri: Do you have any advice for people discriminated against?

Tres: Never give up and keep on fighting. We (differently abled) have to stand together. I learned to accept that I am differently abled. I knew it before, now I accept it.

Lauri: The NPR story really caught people’s attention. It’s been mentioned in different articles and blogs over 10,000 times! People are outraged at the discrimination that still goes on for people with disabilities. I think most people truly don’t know about it. What’s your reaction to that?

Tres: I want to use this platform to fight and stand up for my people.

Lauri: Tres, we join you. It’s time.

Full disclosure, Tres is my friend, our families are friends, and I am pretty crazy about all of them. I experienced the issues with Pivot as they were happening to them over the summer. I was there at a birthday party in early August as Tres told all of our family about how excited he was about starting school there later in the month. And I got a call from Tonya after she was told that Tres was not allowed to attend.  What happened to Tres was wrong, it was devastating for him. Tres is strong and has very supportive family and friends, he got through this, but it should have never happened.

You can see Tres in the Ollibean spotlight and all around the site.