Swampscott's Jonathan Derr advocates for people with Down syndrome and others with disabilities to go to college.
By Terry Date
In Jonathan Derr’s mind, school is a mighty thing.
The 31-year-old, who has Down syndrome, graduated from Swampscott High School — and Cape Cod Community College.
Today he works two jobs and is on the road to getting his driver’s license.
But education has been the key to his life.
It has fed his mind and made work, a social life and driving possible.
Now, he wants others with disabilities including Down syndrome to have a shot at college.
Derr, at home in his family’s Swampscott living room over the holidays, said he arrived to a crossroads early in high school.
He had attended Marblehead schools since he was a child because of the special programs the district offered. Then, early in high school, he changed directions because he did not feel challenged there.
Derr pauses before he speaks, then speaks carefully, choosing words that reflect what he wants to say.
“Mom called Swampscott High,” he said. “It was amazing. All my friends were there.”
He transferred, completing his sophomore through senior years at the school, which, by then, could support him.
“Basically, I found life,” he said.
He managed the lacrosse team, helped the basketball team and played on the golf team.
Every Friday he went to someone else’s house for dinner.
Also, he was challenged academically.
“I kind of focused on the books more,” he said. “History, math, science, wood shop, health.”
He graduated at 18 years old.
At 18, Derr learned about a program on Cape Cod that helps people with disabilities get ready for the outside world.
He also learned that he could attend Cape Cod Community College, one of the very few colleges in New England that offer programs for students with Down syndrome.
Derr learned cooking, office, retail and maintenance skills. He graduated from both the life skills and college programs.
He has worked six years at a golf course, starting out shagging balls on the driving range then, in 2006, being promoted to the Pro Shop.
More recently he has taken his experience back to the classroom, telling younger students with disabilities that their futures are bright if they work hard.
“No one likes to be held back,” he said.
Programs that bring students with disabilities and students without them together benefit both groups, he said. They learn more about each other.
His mother, Jo Ann Simons, President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushign Centers, chairman of the National Down Syndrome Society and other organizations that advocate for people with disabilities, says Masachusetts is a leader in post-secondary education but not in the education of students with disabilities.
Brian Skotko, a doctor at Children's Hospital Boston who advocates for people with Down syndrome, says they have proven that with appropriate support they do succeed in grade schools and high schools.
Many people with Down syndrome want to develop their talents to find meaningful employment but few colleges around the country give them that opportunity, he said.
“We need more postsecondary opportunities for young adults with Down syndrome,” Skotko said.
Derr’s opportunity gave him a chance to learn.
He said he has watched and interacted with others and learned from them.
“I’m slow,” he said. “I like to watch people to see what they can do.
Basically, what I learned was that everyone has strengths and weaknesses.”