by Abby Braithwaite
Edie Brown was a woman on a mission. In the words of her son Ken, she was “a collector of righteous causes that needed someone to fight them.” When her youngest son Eric was born in 1976, she found herself with one of the greatest “causes” of her long, full life sitting right on her lap. Eric was the youngest of seven children, and when Edie and her husband David brought him home from St. Vincent’s hospital, they quickly realized that their busy household was the perfect place to raise a child with Down syndrome. With six older siblings to play with him and teach him all they knew, he was surrounded by all the right kinds of stimulation, and his sister Christina, especially, took him under her wing. Eric and Christina were tied at the hip. Christina loved teaching her little brother anything and everything—sucking out of a straw, tying shoes, doing summersaults, and reading books.
But Edie also quickly realized that in 1976, society didn’t have much space for a child with Down syndrome, and she was appalled to realize how poorly her son and his peers could be treated, how low expectations were, and how few opportunities there were for him to learn and thrive. Things were going to be different in the Brown family, and so began a long life of advocacy.
Edie connected with other forward-thinking parents through PRIDE for kids, an organization founded by Judy Marick and Kay Parks, both moms of young sons with Down syndrome, in conjunction with early childhood educators and researchers at the University of Washington.
By organizing parents, educating them in the benefits of early intervention, and training them to be their children’s first therapists and researchers, PRIDE laid the groundwork for Early Intervention as we know it today.
When it came time for Eric to enter kindergarten at his local school, Edie launched herself into 13 years as an advocate with Portland Public Schools. As far as the Brown family knows, Eric was among the first students with Down syndrome to graduate from an Oregon high school with a regular diploma. This diploma didn’t come easy, though, and Edie rolled up her sleeves and worked with teachers and administrators alike to help Eric and the schools be successful. Edie’s children all remember her tireless advocacy and the many battles she fought over the years to pave the way for Eric’s success. Her son Ken, who was a high schooler when Eric was born, remembers helping her with countless letters to the schools, finding the right balance between emotion and diplomacy that would yield the results that Eric needed. She struck that balance with grace, and was recognized by PPS with an engraved platter thanking her for her contributions to the district’s special education department.
Eric moved out of his parents’ home when he was 18 and moved into an apartment with his sister Christina, who had become a 1st grade teacher. Christina continued her love of teaching with Eric. This time together prepared Eric for independent living.
Today Eric lives in an apartment with an old friend he’s known since his days at PRIDE. For the past 20 years he has worked in the facilities department at Mentor Graphics in Wilsonville, and is a valued and well-regarded employee. He goes to the gym with his brother Ken, he is known for his almost daily letters, and he does a spot-on impersonation of his mom, especially her slightly disgruntled, “Oh, Eric.” Sadly, Edie Brown passed away this past May, and the weekend before she died she sat back and watched Eric work the room at a family gathering. She looked over at her son Ken and said, “It’s working. All this work has come to something good.”
Edie left a lasting legacy for all of us who carry on her fight for inclusion. She believed that all people deserve to be a part of our society, and she worked to make that belief a reality for her son, and so many others besides. She is a testament to the power of a parent who stands up to the status quo.
Editor’s note: The family of Edith Brown (1933-2015) set up a memorial fund with NWDSA/ABI. Inspired by her commitment to inclusion, those funds will support the Kindergarten Inclusion Cohort. We are humbled by Edie’s work and her family’s desire to carry on her legacy in this way. To learn how to contribute to the fund, please visit nwdsa.org and click on the “donate” tab.