At 24 years old, Theo Thompson is already preparing to raise the next generation. As a future teacher and current student, studying special education at Purdue University Fort Wayne in Indiana, Theo certainly has a lot to offer. He is incredibly self-motivated, a fierce advocate for disability rights, and extremely passionate about communication and teaching the next generation of kids.
Theo’s mobility is challenged by tremors and a condition called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), which causes extreme fatigue. But with the help of his trusty service dog Sam (@servicedogsam on Instagram!), he is ready to take on anything – including his new career in special education. “I love to learn,” he says, “so I’m studying teaching so that I can always be learning”. Theo is “openly autistic”, and hopes to use his life experience to help his students set and achieve their own goals. He knows how important it is to self-advocate, and make sure you’re being heard, even as a student. “I struggled a lot with that in high school,” he admits, “but once I got to college, I was able to speak for myself, and my words were all heard and acknowledged and validated, and my needs were met”.
Theo acknowledges that it’s difficult for him when plans and schedules change, but he has maneuvered through this pandemic with grace and, seemingly, ease. Last fall, in the midst of lockdowns, he and his classmates were unable to receive field experience work placement. Theo decided to drop his classes, and take a temporary job in his field instead, working with a blind high school student in a culinary vocational classroom. He has since gone back to school, but that initiative is the perfect example of the way Theo lives his life: always adapting, being honest about his wants and needs, and taking every opportunity to help others.
Even at his young age, it’s not hard to see that Theo is remarkably selfless, and has high hopes for the future. Teachers that genuinely care about their students’ wellbeing, even after they leave the classroom, are often the most beloved. “I want to have an impact on the students that I work with,” he says. “I want my students to have the most fulfilling futures they can”. And while there are sure to be challenges along the way, Theo is certainly well equipped to handle them.
What does ‘defy convention’ mean to you?
A lot of disabled people don’t like to be considered “wheelchair-bound”. I’m not “stuck” in the chair in the sense that it’s getting me out of the house; it’s making it so I can go places. There’s this perception in society of how you can best function and best live your life, and that usually involves walking and how you move around and interact with the world. But figuring out how to access the world is different for every person. The equipment that I need to use to access the world makes it so that I am not confined to my house. I can go become a teacher and reach students who, like me, are disabled and are going through similar struggles. Defying convention means that I’m breaking that norm a bit, of what other people see. They’re also seeing that disabled people can be successful and do things. It just might be a bit different. It also shows the idea of the limitations that society puts on us, if they make a ramp too steep, or if a shop only has stairs. Small things make a difference. It’s a really good conversation to be able to have with other people.
What are your passions?
I’m studying special education because I’m really into and involved with it. I’m autistic, so I can relate to my students a lot that way. I relate to them with my other conditions as well. I’m also very passionate about communication, and so I plan on going for intense intervention special education, meaning I’ll work with people who have higher support needs. Finding a level of communication with the individuals and students I’ll be working with is very exciting to me. I’ll be showing them that they can really set their minds to different things and do them, and setting them up to meet their goals, wherever they’re at. That’s one of my big passions, and that’s what I focus on. I love to learn, so I’m studying teaching so that I can always be learning.
Are there any political causes that you’re passionate about?
Here in the US, we’ve received same-sex marriage equality, but finding marriage equality for people with disabilities is a big issue. If people with disabilities get married, their benefits get cut. For example, if I’m on the Medicaid waiver here, then I can’t have more than $3,000 in assets, which means I can never own my own house or my own car. If I were to get married, then our incomes are combined, and that gets cut.
Seeking out marriage equality for those people is important, and acknowledging that disabled people can have their own craving for relationships and romantic interests and fulfilment. It’s not fair that disabled people cannot get married and still receive the services they need to continue living a normal life. I know that I have privilege as a white man, so that’s important to acknowledge, but that’s the biggest thing for me, politically. I want my students to have the most fulfilling futures that they can have.
What would you consider a perfect day?
I try not to set up “perfect days” because then I set an expectation. My autism makes it so that I like to schedule a lot, so if I schedule something and end up breaking that routine, it’s really hard for me. I work not to do that. My fatigue can also cause me to change plans immediately. I do schedule anything that’s going to be happening, but I try to avoid setting up an idea of what “perfect” is, so that I don’t have that overwhelming feeling. But today was a really good day! I had an evaluation for my new custom wheelchair this morning, and then I’m going to work on some things for my summer college class. Lots of paperwork… always lots of paperwork (laughs). And I’m doing this interview! So it’s a good day.
What’s your favourite thing about SideStix?
I actually discovered SideStix in 2011. When I was younger, I had juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and so my mobility was challenged a lot with the pain and fatigue of that. I was looking up different crutch reviews online, and came across a review that Josh Sundquist did on SideStix, and that’s when I learned about them. I like them because I can carry them more easily. I use a wheelchair most of the time, but if I’m getting up from my chair, I can carry my SideStix more easily on my chair so I can get further. I actually have an oxygen tank bag on my chair that I put my crutches in, so I can take them with me easier!
I like that they’re lightweight, and that the cuffs open on the side. I got the carbon fiber ones, so they’re very lightweight. I like that they’re adjustable, but not with that clicking button. I don’t like extra noise, and these are a lot quieter! I also like that there are attachments for the bottom. I haven’t purchased any of them, but it’s nice that there are options. Whenever you look up pictures, you see people doing great things, like climbing mountains or going on trails, or in the snow. I could take them to the beach and be fine. Also, since SideStix is a smaller company, I know that I could contact you and I’d hear back from a person about what’s going on, if I had any questions about repairing things.
When I first discovered them, I did a lot of research. I research a lot of things. When I’m going to an appointment, I make sure I know as much as I can about what’s out there before I do it. Like today, before my wheelchair consultation, I knew what I was getting into. I had a list, and I was prepared. Learning about the technology of these crutches when I first did in 2011 or so was so cool. It was very cool because they made sense! It was nice to find something that was also adjustable, where it could be shifted a bit, and also had attachments for going to do different things. You’ve since added more options, and made them more adjustable to different price points and things like that, but they still have the Tornado Tips on them for shock absorption. And the adjustable angles of the hand positioning is such a big thing. When I was first using crutches, I’d get such bad blisters on the inside of my thumb web section, and gloves would rub too. Having that angle there is very nice, because your hands can wear down very fast. Taking care of the joints that are keeping you going prevents less wear down the line.
What is one of the greatest ideas you’ve had in the past year?
Last fall, I decided to drop my college classes, because we weren’t getting placed for field experiences due to the pandemic. I got a job in my field instead, and I worked with a legally blind high school student in a culinary vocational classroom. It was fantastic, because I was working with him through his IEP (Individualized Education Program), and setting goals and just pushing him because I knew he could do it. I was learning just as much as I was teaching, and applying my knowledge that I’ve learned so far in three years of college. I’m going back to school now that things are calming down a bit.
How important is community building for you?
It’s been difficult in the past year! (laughs). I’m working on rebuilding a sense of community. I’ve met a lot of people through school, and professors. I’m part of an international honours organization for educators, called Kappa Delta Pi. I’m the advocacy chairperson for that. That has provided me with a large sense of community in the education world, as well as people I meet at my field experiences, people in the autism community, and other people with disabilities.
How do you want to be remembered in history?
I don’t know if I’m influential enough to be remembered! But I want to have an impact on the students that I work with. Maybe something that I said will stick with them, and it’ll impact how they interact with somebody else. The same goes for the people I go to college with, or people that I work with at jobs – maybe something I say, or how I approach things, will impact how they interact with another person, and that wave can kind of go on. I don’t know that it’ll be necessarily linked to my name or anything, but I know that others have impacted me in a way that impacts how I interact with others daily.
What is the best thing you’ve learned from living with a mobility challenge?
I think self-advocacy as a skill is the biggest thing I’ve learned, and that has several aspects to it. There’s the aspect of figuring out where you are realistically, and being honest with yourself. That might mean that there’s negative aspects, so not denying those, but also remaining positive and figuring out ways around those. Learning to adapt, and then speaking up for what you need is important, not only because it’s going to help you, but because it can help others that come after you too.
Initially, it was scary to speak up. I struggled with that a lot in high school. I learned to speak up for myself, but since you’re a minor under the age of 18, they don’t listen to the student voice as much as they listen to parents. Once I escaped high school and graduated, it was very freeing to go to college and speak with my accommodation specialist, who really listened to me. I knew that what I needed for myself in high school wasn’t being listened to, but once I got to college, I was able to speak for myself, and my words were all heard and acknowledged and validated, and my needs were met.
Do you have any advice for someone who is just starting out with a mobility challenge?
Learn your limits. Make sure that people know that you’re the one who chooses what you do and don’t do. I think that’s the big thing. Other people sometimes choose not to invite me to things because they thought it would be too much for me. But that’s up to me. Learning your limits is the biggest piece of advice, because you need to know where you’re at and what’s too much. And you’re going to find out what’s too much! I think anybody with a mobility challenge has reached a point where they went too far and then got stuck (laughs). Finding that wall and getting knocked down a couple times, but figuring out your limit is very important. You need to know your limits before you know what you need to ask for to get help.
Consent is also a big thing. On my next wheelchair, I’m getting push handles that fold down, so that people can’t come up behind me and start pushing me. It does take a while to learn to ask for help, especially when you’re younger, or newly facing challenges. It takes a while because you want to just do everything on your own, but I know from other able-bodied people that I’ve met who work with disabled students that they’ve learned to just wait until the person asks. I mean, sometimes you have to jump in for the student’s safety, because you’re responsible for their safety, but you step back and you wait until they ask you for help because it’s their body. It’s still that concept of bodily autonomy; you don’t want somebody else deciding what you’re going to do.
There are times where I go to the grocery store just to get a couple things, but then I end up with too many things on my lap and something falls, and then people are staring. I have to be bold and ask a stranger if they can help me get back out and get a cart. But it’s still about learning to ask for help, rather than people just jumping in. I mean, it’s one thing to offer to help somebody, and another thing to just jump in and start doing it for them. It goes back to consent. Helping is also something that is based on consent.
How do you stay motivated?
I think you just have to keep trying. Sometimes you crash, and that’s okay. One big thing for me is acknowledging where I’m at, and trying not to invalidate where I am. That’s probably the biggest thing that’s helped me to keep on keeping on. I don’t find motivation from reflecting on where I’ve been, though I work on validating where I currently am so that I don’t shame myself based on the past. I get stuck in it, just like anybody else could. If I’m happy, that’s okay, and if I’m angry or upset, that’s okay too. I don’t want that energy to get trapped inside me. I deserve to express that, and feel that, and then keep going.