When Greg Terhaar graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in 2007, one of the classes he completed was Advanced Placement European History. Early in life, he decided that the fact that he has Down syndrome wasn’t going to slow him.With his family’s support, he excelled in school while also competing at the regional and state levels of Special Olympics. He was chosen as one of five graduates who would change the world by The Vox, a teen-produced newspaper that was published by The Spokesman-Review. Terhaar is fulfilling his part of the deal: He’s traveled to Olympia and Washington, D.C., as an advocate for people with disabilities, and now he has been appointed to the Spokane Human Rights Commission.
“I met Mayor Mary Verner at City Hall, and I explained my mission to her,” said Terhaar. “My mission is for people without disabilities to get along with people with disabilities, even when it comes to employment.”
Verner listened carefully, Terhaar said, then suggested he’d be a valuable addition to the commission.
Joe Terhaar, Greg Terhaar’s dad, said Greg is the first person with Down syndrome to serve on the commission. The young man is a frequent speaker at Spokane Guilds’ School programs and Special Olympics fundraisers – he is not at all intimidated by crowds.
“He really doesn’t know fear. It’s not something to worry about with him,” Joe Terhaar said about his son. “He likes to do speeches and presentations – his ideal job would be as a docent at a museum somewhere.”
Many people with disabilities have a difficult time finding employment, sometimes because of the preconceived notions of employers and potential colleagues. Greg Terhaar has volunteered in jobs at the Rocket Bakery and Rosauers supermarket. His last job before being laid off about a year ago was with Kimmel Athletic Supply. Today he takes classes at Spokane Community College while he continues to look for a job.
“I would say I have been watching the job sector more than any other person this last year,” Terhaar said, adding that he feels like employment has been cut out of policy-making and public debate.
“Everyone is so focused on health care, and that’s important to people with disabilities, too,” Terhaar said. “But so is finding a job.”
Joe Terhaar said his son has had excellent support through Career Path Services – a nonprofit organization that helps people make career transitions and continue their education.
“Last we were there I was surprised at how many jobs he has applied for,” Joe Terhaar said. “The list was as long as the sheet of paper it was written on. Many employers don’t realize that people with disabilities can do just fine with just a minimum of help.”
Greg Terhaar said his dream job would combine history and politics, very much like work on the Human Rights Commission will do.
“I love history, and I love doing research,” Terhaar said. “Because I know so much about history I can relate from our modern time back to other times in history, like ancient civilizations.”
Terhaar realizes that his practical job may be a bit more pedestrian – say doing dishes at a restaurant or working in customer service – than his dream job of being a docent or a historical guide somewhere.
“We have always prepared him for that,” said Joe Terhaar.
For now, the job hunt continues as does Greg Terhaar’s passion for human rights.
“The banner has been passed to us from people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, to defend human rights,” Greg Terhaar said. “People with disabilities are the second generation of the movement. First, African-Americans were fully recognized – I want that same thing for disabled people not just in Spokane but around the world.”