Rising to the Occasion

Two Stories of Post-Secondary Success

What do you want to be when you grow up?
It’s a question kids are probably asked hundreds of times. The choice is not simple and may be fraught with indecision and false starts. For young adults with disabilities, there may be added challenges for achieving goals. But, not all challenges are insurmountable.

Matt Cottle first thought he wanted to work on a search and rescue team. Danielle Baldwin thought she would be a Kindergarten teacher. After some growth, exploration and trials, each found their true passion. After learning some self-advocacy skills and enlisting the assistance of their supportive families, each have found their niche.

Matt recalls a career presentation he attended during his senior year in high school, “This gentleman was representing a culinary school and all he had was a cutting board, a knife and an apple. He was cutting away, just talking to the class about the opportunities these skills will give you, and right when he was done with the lecture, he had a made swan! Just with his bare hands and a knife!”

The combination of precision and creativity struck a chord with Matt. After discussing his new interest in becoming a baker with his parents, Peggy and Dave, they searched for ways for Matt to gain necessary skills and explore his talents. As an individual with autism, Matt found the traditional routes of classroom learning or on-the-job training in an entry-level position were not conducive to his learning style. With Matt’s determination and Peggy’s creative thinking, Matt connected with pastry chef Heather Netzloff, founder of Rumpelstiltskin Granola. For three hours every Monday for three years, Matt baked new recipes with Heather. Through the week, Matt would repeat the recipe on his own, perfecting his craft and sharing his creations with Peg and Dave.

But baking is only one part of owning a bakery. The Cottles also had to gain experience with the business end of the enterprise. For assistance in that arena, Matt was accepted to SeedSpot, a small business incubator. Peggy recalls, “SeedSpot was a really good intro into how business is done.” She added, “It helped us understand that this is a real business and we now needed to act like it.”

Matt opened The Stuttering King Bakery in 2012 operating out of his home kitchen. He named his business after King George VI, made famous by Colin Firth in the 2010 film The King’s Speech. Peggy was concerned about the name her son chose but Matt explained, “He overcame his disability and I thought, I’m going to overcome mine.”

Danielle Baldwin is no stranger to overcoming a disability. Danielle was in third grade when she first received an Individualized Education Program (IEP). After the eligibility meeting, her mom Pam recalls sitting down with her to explain about IEPs and what having one meant; essentially giving her first lesson in self-advocacy. “I told her ‘you just learn differently,” said Pam, continuing, “I could see the relief in her face as she looked at me and said ‘so there is nothing wrong with me!’”

By the time Danielle got to high school, she was leading her own IEP meetings. She explained, “I’ve always liked slide shows so I made one about what I wanted and what worked for me. It was easier than sitting down and trying to explain.”

From the time she was in elementary school, she thought being a Kindergarten teacher was going to be her calling. It took until high school for her to realize her true interest was in cosmetology. She was accepted into the Maricopa Skills Center’s Cosmetology Program in her senior year. The program was very hands-on and fit well with Danielle’s learning style. However, not everything was hands-on. She knew she needed her tests read to her and for the test to be administered in a separate room so she spoke with her teachers to ensure those accommodations were available for her.

The biggest hurdle was taking her state licensing exam which is given in two parts; one practical exam and one written exam. Although nervous, she wasn’t too concerned about the practical aspect of the exam. For the written exam, Pam was ready to jump in to assist with requests for accommodations but heard a firm, “I’ve got it” from Danielle who contacted the state licensing board and made the request herself. The board contracted with someone to read Danielle her exam and made sure the test was given in a room separate from others. Despite nicking her finger with her scissors during her practical exam, she passed both sections on her initial attempt. Danielle is now a cosmetologist at Innerlooks salon in Glendale. She enjoys color consultations and Pam is a frequent visitor to her chair, self-advocating for her perfect shade.

Although there is no one formula for success that will work for every person, Danielle and Matt’s stories do have a few themes in common: self-determination, self-advocacy and support. Raising Special Kids can help families learn about and practice all three.

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