Written by Daniel Hazard
Raising 'ability awareness,' UCC youth produces educational documentary
Aperfect back flop knocked the wind out of Tyler Greene. "Then," remembers his pastor, "he let out this jubilant scream."
Even though Tyler had already gone horseback riding and water rafting, the Rev. Tim Ensworth of First Congregational UCC in Waterloo, Iowa, assumed Tyler would not jump off the rock into the water below.
"Cerebral palsy and all, he climbs the back of the rock and takes off," Ensworth recalls.
Surprised? Don't be. This is Tyler. This fall, Waterloo School Superintendent Dewitt R. Jones replaced his opening address to the district's 1,700 employees with a screening of a new DVD produced by one of Waterloo's own.
"I'm Tyler: Don't Be Surprised," a 15-minute disability awareness tool, was created by 16-year-old Tyler Greene as his Eagle Scout project, with the help of his father, Paul.
"I know the world needs to hear what it says," Tyler says, speaking to Tiffany Clarno, who serves as the UCC Disabilities Ministries representative to the UCC Youth and Young Adult Board. "My dream is to do good things that are right and of value."
"I want to work on equal rights," he says. "I'm not sure where that will take me."
Church member Dee Vandeventer and her staff at ME&V, an Iowa-based marketing, communications and fundraising company, donated time to assist Tyler with the video project. Tyler's cousin, Max Lind, with the help of a photographer friend, designed the DVD's cover art and a promotional website imtyler.org.
"We had an incredible production team," Paul Greene said.
In the video, viewers are introduced to significant persons in Tyler's life, all who see Tyler for what he can do, not what we can't. They are practicing "ability awareness," Tyler teaches.
Through promoting 'ability awareness,' says Paul Greene, Tyler is determined to change the disempowering way the world interacts with people with disabilities.
The "ability awareness" phrase came to Tyler from a Scout merit badge program called "disability awareness" that his dad teaches. "Except," Tyler explains, "my dad takes out the 'dis-.'"
David Clark, clerk of the church council at Boston's Old South UCC and a member of the UCC Disabilities Ministries board, describes Tyler's DVD as "an exceptional job for a person in his stage of psycho-emotional development."
Clark, who also has severe cerebral palsy, is fully integrated in the world. A web designer and computer troubleshooter since college graduation, Clark was on the original technology team that developed the web accessibility tool, known as "Bobby."
"I don't want people to be amazed that I get up every morning and have a job," Clark says. "Having a job to me is ordinary. When anything is viewed as extraordinary, expectations are not the same."
Tyler shares Clark's view, saying that, once people get to know him or once he gets to talking with his friends, any initial preoccupation with his disability quickly fades away.
"It really does not take long," Tyler says. "Like a minute and it is gone."
Reality over perception
The Rev. Jeanne Tyler, co-pastor of Saint Paul UCC in Keokuk, Iowa, who also manages cerebral palsy, has said she views the realities of people with disabilities as being similar to those "living on the margins."
"It is being an outsider, someone to fear or humiliate," she said in 2004, speaking at the UCC-related Leaven Center in Troy, Mich. "Humiliation is about disempowering someone."
That's why Tyler's church, First Congregational UCC in Waterloo, focuses on empowerment.
More than 12 years ago, when Ensworth became its pastor, the church's 150-year-old building already had been adapted architecturally for inclusion, including the addition of an all-floors elevator, covered entry way, ramp approach and automatic door.
"Attitudinal inclusion started with the attitudes of Tyler and his own family," Ensworth recalls. "They are comfortable with him and he is comfortable with himself, so the church echoes that."
Tyler was born in 1990 as the third child of Gina and Paul, and the brother of Lucas and Molly. The family has been deeply connected with their church for five generations.
"Everything about Tyler is about perception rather than reality," says Tony Lorsung, Tyler's Boy Scout leader, who has known Tyler since his pre-Cub Scout days.
"At first, I felt sorry," Lorsung says. "When Tyler joined Cubs, I realized, why should I feel sorry about him if he does not feel sorry for himself?"
"Tyler is an outgoing person about who he is and about his vision of his future," Lorsung says. "Why should he be separated and not do the things he wants to do? To me, he does not have a disability any more."
Tyler, an active teenager who has earned Karate's yellow belt with a blue stripe, plays softball and enjoys the internet. But he's also direct. His activism speaks to what many disabilities awareness advocates are saying: "Will you be able to see past my wheelchair and my speech challenges to appreciate my abilities?"
Tyler's confirmation co-teacher, Hannah Carse, remembers Tyler's frank response when some spoke to him about "a cure."
"If I were constantly waiting for a cure," Carse remembers Tyler saying, "I would think that I am not okay or whole now. I don't ever feel like I am waiting to be whole. This is who I am."
The Rev. Bob Molsberry, pastor of St. Paul UCC in Belleville, Ill., and vice-chair of UCC Disabilities Ministries, acknowledges that disabilities are a part of a person's identity.
"Human beings are not perfectible," Molsberry said in a nationally-televised interview that aired in August. "Disability is not the defining aspect of any life. It is part of our human diversity. What we need is inclusion so everyone can be at the table. Fix the steps, bathrooms, doors - whatever needs accommodation."
Tyler is a national member of the Kids as Self Advocates' speak-out task force. He wants to see young people with disabilities and those with special health-care needs have control over their own lives and futures.
"KASA has been a huge factor in my realizing the rights I actually have," Tyler says.
Tyler's 'theology of hope'
It was theologian Paul Tillich who once said, "We have learned how hard it is to preserve genuine hope. We know that one has to go ever again through the narrows of a painful and courageous 'in-spite-of.'"
And, UCC minister Dosia Carlson, whom polio paralyzed as a youth, once said, "There has to be a balance between the things that we accept and those we fight."
So Tyler knows that 'hope' is a big factor in his life.
"If you have hope you have a reason for doing things instead of aimlessly wandering around," he says. "We, as a family, ruled out 'can't' a long time ago. I think if we [used] that word, we wouldn't be very far. For us it's always not a matter of whether 'I can,' but just a matter of 'how.'"
Tyler says he hears competing messages in our society: "You can do anything" and "You can't do anything." "It is really hard, when you hear all the messages to figure out, who should I listen to?" Tyler says. "Dad helps with that."
"You cannot go through life not questioning anything," Tyler believes. "If you really, really want to do what is right, you may have to take a few risks."
For Tyler, God is "like your father, your best friend, the one who created everyone. God watches over us and will always be there to love and protect us no matter what."
"I kind of believe that God has a plan for us," he says. "I think God believes that the world needed some help. I think what God has planned for me is to help people understand, to educate people about ability awareness. It is life-long."
Surprised? You shouldn't be.
The Rev. Dee Brauninger, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Burwell, Neb., is editor of "That All May Worship and Serve" and an executive committee member of the UCC Disabilities Ministries.
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For information on "I'm Tyler" DVD, visit imtyler.org. Learn more about UCC Disabilities Ministries at uccdm.org. For more about computer accessibility issues, visit davidaccess.org. Kids as Self Advocates' website is or phone 773/338-5541.