According to Michael McLaughlin, the way to effect change in society is to effect change in schools.
McLaughlin has been doing just that for the past decade — advocating for inclusive practices for students with special needs.
"All people learn differently," McLaughlin said. "You have to presume competency. There's competence in there, but society doesn't see it that way all the time. If we can affect change in the schools, we can affect change down the road."
McLaughlin, 58, lives in Laurel with his wife and two of his three children, and is a former neighborhood columnist for the Laurel Leader.
His youngest, Erin, a 14-year-old student at Dwight D. Eisenhower Middle School, has Down syndrome, and McLaughlin's journey as an activist began with her. He knew, he said, that Erin was meant to be a part of her school and her community.
It was an extra push from his children's principal that set him on his way.
"I've always been an involved parent, and (Laurel Elementary principal) Melinda Lee got me even more involved right around the time Erin was entering school," he said. Lee prompted McLaughlin to serve on an advisory council with the Maryland State Department of Education.
"It just continued," McLaughlin said. "This was involvement beyond PTA, and when Erin got to school, as a special education parent, you just get drawn to it."
Over the years, McLaughlin has worked for better access to education for students — not just students with learning disabilities, but all students. A path to that engagement, McLaughlin said, is universal design for learning: a framework and set of educational principles that, in short, adapts a curriculum to an individual, not the other way around.
"People are understanding now, that people grew up with, are growing up with, school issues that can be addressed if they were presented information in a different way," McLaughlin said. "I'm a visual learner, but other people like to see things on paper, and Erin's a digital native. Still, she's still being handed assignments in pen and paper.
"It's not just Erin, but kids without disabilities who aren't being engaged in that way. This is about multiple and flexible means of presentation for learning."
'Start passing it on'
McLaughlin's achievements as an advocate is a long list. He serves on the Maryland Down Syndrome Advocacy Coalition; and from 2003 to 2005, he served on the Maryland State Department of Education's Maryland Parents Advisory Council, the council Lee suggested McLaughlin join. He is currently involved in an offshoot of that council, the Superintendent's Family Involvement Council.
He is also the chair of the Prince George's County Disability Issues Advisory Board, which advises the Board of Education, and was chair of the county's Special Education Citizens' Advisory Committee. He also serves on the board of directors for the Arc of Maryland and the Arc of Prince George's County.
It was for his ongoing work that the Arc of Prince George's County honored McLaughlin with the 2011 Award of Excellence in Advocacy. McLaughlin said he was humbled and grateful for the award, which he received at an October celebration.
"I'm flattered, but I've got to start passing it on," he said. "I'm trying to encourage other advocates to step up. I've been the face of these outfits for a few years … and it's always the same faces at the meetings. As our kids get older, we need newer, younger parents to step up. The parents need to be heard, even if schools don't necessarily want to hear it."
McLaughlin also supports people — especially Erin — becoming self-advocates.
He said Erin is on her way. She's outspoken, empathetic and, in most regards, a typical 14-year-old girl.
Despite encouraging others to advocate for themselves, McLaughlin said he will continue to work to introduce and advocate for universal design for learning that, he said, will one day remove barriers for students like Erin that exist in schools. It might not happen during Erin's school-lifetime, he said, but it'll happen.
"I foresee a day when all education is special education," McLaughlin said. "All kids will be treated specially, and (being special needs) won't be as discriminating or segregating as it historically has been."