Megan Rothermel has never let the word “no” stop her from achieving academic success and independence. And she hears the word a lot.
No, she can’t learn Spanish because she has Down syndrome.
No, she can’t be independent because she has diabetes.
But to all the doubters, the short, pony-tailed 23-year-old says, “Watch me.”
Academic ups and downs
The first trial came in kindergarten when Megan’s mother, DeeOnda, tried to enroll her in the Garrettsville school system. The system’s policy said no students with multiple disabilities could attend. They were instead sent to Ravenna schools, which were better equipped for disabled students.
But Ravenna was far away. DeeOnda wanted Megan to go to school with her neighbors so she could make friends close to home. After DeeOnda debated with the Garrettsville school staff, they finally agreed to accept Megan.
She became the first multiple-disability student at the school, and she still talks to her best friend she met in kindergarten.
“Every time we started school, every year, the teachers would be real hesitant about having her in their classroom,” DeeOnda said.
The teachers thought Megan would require a lot of extra work on their part. DeeOnda said it was mainly the Down syndrome that worried them. “And probably ‘cause of my health issue too,” Megan, who’d been silent, adds softly.
Before 1975, students with multiple disabilities were rarely sent to school at all. Many were housed in mental institutions until the Education of the Handicapped Act forced public schools to create special intervention and education programs for the disabled, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Though teachers had their doubts about Megan, she said she exceeded their expectations.
“The only downfall I had is math. But science, history, language … I excelled in. I got A’s,“ Megan said triumphantly.
In high school, Megan took regular education classes — except for one special education class in English.
Because she didn’t take regular English she couldn’t take a class she was interested in: spanish. School policy dicatated students had to pass the regular English class to take a foreign language.
“So mom said that was okay, and we went and got (Spanish) CD’s, and I taught myself Spanish,” Megan said matter-of-factly.
Along with the tapes, she got some help from the Spanish teacher, Anna Stamolis. Anna said she met Megan after substituting in the special education room.
“She’d always say, ‘I wanna learn to speak Spanish,’” Anna said. So Anna gave Megan a Spanish book to study on her own. She soon found out Megan had a great memory and could learn Spanish words and sentences with ease.
“And I would see the Spanish teacher in the hallway and I would speak to her in Spanish, and then the teacher really liked me; liked how I spoke to her, and invited me to be in her class,” Megan said, grinning.
School administrators made an exception to their rule and let Megan take Spanish.
“I would put the kids to shame because she’d get a 95 or 96 percent on her tests and kids in regular (education) couldn’t do that,” Anna said.
People with Down syndrome have proven quite adept at understanding information, but they often struggle to express the knowledge they’ve retained, according to the National Down Syndrome Society. They have trouble processing information and then focusing attention on one task. Megan’s been taking classes and improving her Spanish for five years.
“I can say, “Hola, muy bien, y tu?” Megan brags, rolling her R’s. She’s also taken two semesters of American Sign Language through ’s Career and Community Services program for the intellectually disabled. Those classes prepared her for an unexpected opportunity. She got to sign the national anthem at last December’s Special Olympics.
“I stood in front of everybody,” Megan proudly announced.
And she plans on taking Greek next semester.
Megan is 23, but her unpredictable diabetes makes her rely on her mother to help her when her blood sugar is high or low.
She contracted Type 1 Diabetes when she had chicken pox in kindergarten. Her antibodies tried to kill the virus, but instead they unintentionally killed part of her pancreas. The organ stopped producing insulin, and she had to start injecting herself with insulin to regulate her blood sugar.
She must figure out exactly how many carbs she’ll ingest before every meal of the day. For every 15 carbs, she must inject two units of insulin. Megan’s math skills are lacking, so she has to call her mother every time she eats to calculate how much insulin to take.
Even if she painstakingly keeps track of her diet, her blood sugar sometimes still drops or rises for apparently no reason at all. In the past, her mother or high school aids were always around to help her. Now that she’s taking college courses and spending more time on her own she must watch it herself. Not all by herself, though; her best friend Kelsy Hodgkinson is usually there to throw her a sugary treat or tell her to take an insulin shot to bring her back to normal.
Kelsy said Megan starts to yawn and get grumpy when her sugar start to plummet. Kelsy then makes sure Megan eats sugary food to raise it back to normal. If Megan’s sugar is extremely low, Kelsy calls DeeOnda to come and take Megan to the emergency room. Sometimes Kelsy has to call DeeOnda during class.
Once, Kelsy noticed Megan was becoming irritable. She saw Megan reaching for her tube of mini M&M’s, but she knew her fine motor skills weren’t the best because of Down syndrome. Kelsey jumped up, grabbed the tube, ripped the plastic case off, and handed Megan some chocolates.
On her own
Megan’s also ready for another kind of independence.
“She’s got a boyfriend now,” DeeOnda slyly admits.
“Thanks, mom” Megan replied sarcastically — with a hint of excitement.
Megan met her 6-foot tall, brown-haired boyfriend Brad Bohrer in Kent State’s CCS program.
“He came up to me and said, ‘I’m gonna marry Megan,’” DeeOnda said. “I said, ‘You are? Does she know this?’ He said, ‘No,’ and I said, ‘Well Brad, don’t you think you ‘oughta tell her?’”
So Brad told her, and they started dating. Megan brings Brad into the conversation whenever she can, whether it’s mooning over the flowers and stuffed animals he’s given her or giggling about his Michael Jackson-esque dance moves.
“They’re talkin’ about getting married. But it’s not gonna happen ‘til they’re out of school,” DeeOnda said.
“Thanks mom,” Megan grumbled.
So far, they’ve been to the mall, movies and dinner. Though their parents must drive them to dates because neither of them have a driver’s license, Megan’s still hopeful the two of them can live by themselves one day. Even if that means living one driveway from her family’s home. The Rothermels own a guest home in their cul-de-sac, which they’ll give to Megan once she’s ready to move out.
Still, Megan won’t be able to enjoy a traditional family life. Her depleted pancreas can’t support a pregnancy.
“He wants to have five kids, but I’m a diabetic and I can’t put my body through it,” Megan said.
Brad told her he would much rather sacrifice having a baby rather than put Megan’s life in jeopardy.
“So, we switched from five kids to five dogs,” Megan said with a grin.
“I’m okay with the dogs,” DeeOnda chuckled.