When Advocacy Grows Legs, For Me, They Have Paws – Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence
Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence

When Advocacy Grows Legs, For Me, They Have Paws

By: Gretchen Vaught

My family recently welcomed a third canine member, Ally, my son’s psychological support animal. For me, this is a major chapter in a story that’s been unfolding since I was a child myself.

In 1983, my class was paired with a class of students with disabilities. Weekly we would spend time playing together, reading and doing things kids do. Through that life-impacting experience, I met and formed a bond with Jessie, a girl my age with cerebral palsy.

Fast-forward a few decades and I found myself bringing home my own child with a disability, my son, Colin, who has Trisomy 21. If it’s possible to be at once overwhelmed and inspired, that’s how I would describe the first year or so of his life. We eventually figured out that his disability was more of a “different ability” than it was anything to be feared, and I wanted others to have this same appreciation. That’s when I became an advocate.

Since Colin’s presence blessed my life, I’ve looked for ways to further his opportunities, and I’m happiest where my efforts also benefit others with disabilities. Kentucky has one of the nation’s leading waiver programs for the intellectually and physically disabled, so it should follow that we are one of the most inclusive states in the country, as well. I’m happy to say that progress is being made, while we still have a long way to go.

My inclusion advocacy efforts led me to join the Fayette County Public Schools’ Excellent Student Outcomes Sub-committee of the Equity Council. Our group spent nearly two years researching programs that would strengthen the inclusion of students with disabilities, and we settled on Peer Support Arrangements and Peer Networks, as designed by the Human Development Institute of the University of Kentucky, our state’s Disability Center of Excellence. I realized something like this had marked me in grade school, after all. We presented our recommendation to the Equity Council in fall 2019, just before the covid quarantine closed the coffin on our momentum.

That project was my thesis for Prichard Committee’s Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership, and I graduated with the “covid class” of Fellows in 2020. Ironically, though, it was after this un-illustrious culmination of all our work that my efforts picked up pace.

Now that we are finally through covid, my inclusion advocacy has turned a promising corner with my son’s starting his first year of school with his new service dog, Ally. Just a few weeks into the new school year with her, we’ve already seen his speech become more intelligible, his self-determination skills get stronger, and his sense of responsibility increase. We expect that he will only continue to grow.

Colin is the one doing the real work that will inspire other people to make use of service dogs for themselves and their loved ones. That’s the role he was born to fill. Even in my broader advocacy efforts, I’m just being a mom, merely facilitating his success. Like all mothers, my heart’s desire is to see my son succeed, which means him doing more of what he wants to do anyway: be more independent of me. So our success is bittersweet. Now I must help him transfer his dependence on me to a precious little beast that we both love for our own reasons—a different, but just as valid, peer support arrangement.


Gretchen Vaught has been a lifelong advocate for the sidelined and marginalized. Her past advocacy roles have included but are not limited to National Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs (AMCHP) Family Representative for the state of Tennessee; Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital Parent Advisory Council Member; Fayette County Public Schools Equity Council Excellent Student Outcomes Sub-committee Secretary; School-based Decision-making Council Member, FCPS; Co-founder and Board Vice Chair, Build Inclusion; and Board Member, Down Syndrome Association of Central Kentucky. She is a Prichard Committee Fellow and works as a Senior Communication Consultant. Her most rewarding roles are wife of more than 25 years to her high school sweetheart and mother of their four children.

“Allowing individuals to be devalued due to the characteristics that make them unique robs us all of their invaluable contributions to the world we share.”