Being Delaney Dunigan
The Kensington teen is busy with cheerleading, homework and hanging out with friends—things her parents weren't sure she'd ever do
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At a Girl Scouts meeting earlier this year, Delaney decided she wanted to sing Andra Day’s ballad “Rise Up,” which was played during the closing ceremony of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games. She met Day at a Special Olympics kickoff event on the National Mall two years ago, and they took a photo together that later appeared in Down Syndrome World magazine. The song has been one of her favorites ever since.
And I’ll rise up,
High like the waves,
I’ll rise up,
In spite of the ache,
I’ll rise up,
And I’ll do it a thousand times again.
Emily often gets emotional when she hears Delaney sing that song, she says, and it hit her that day—like it does once in a while—just how far her daughter has come. Therapists from the county’s Infants and Toddlers Program told her and Mark that Delaney would do all the things most babies do—it was just going to take some extra time. But they weren’t sure what to believe. At 27 months, she took her first steps on their front sidewalk. “I held her hands and let go and off she went,” Emily says.
Wherever Emily went with Delaney, whatever they were doing, she talked to her. She and Mark had received a letter when Delaney was a newborn from a woman in Florida, a friend of Mark’s cousin, whose son had Down syndrome. Anything you’re doing, say it aloud, the woman wrote. “I was obsessed,” Emily says, “so much so that when I went grocery shopping without Delaney I was still talking to the cart.”
After a year in the county’s Preschool Education Program, which provides services for 3- to 5-year-olds with educational disabilities, Delaney started spending more time at home with her mom. A former preschool teacher, Emily had decided to start a small preschool in her house for a few neighborhood children so that Delaney could also be with typical kids her age. Delaney went to kindergarten at Rock View Elementary in Kensington, where she spent most of the day with special education students. When the family moved at the end of that year, Emily asked the county to let Delaney repeat kindergarten in a regular classroom. By then she was running around, talking more, learning her letters and showing an interest in reading. At the open house that summer, a few days before school started, Emily asked Delaney’s new teacher at Kensington Parkwood if she knew she had a child with Down syndrome in her class. She didn’t want the woman to be caught off guard. “I asked for her,” the teacher said.
For a while, Delaney’s classmates didn’t seem to notice anything different about her. A classroom aide helped her with writing and art projects, and everyone played together at recess. “It’s like this little cushioning of a couple years where nobody has a clue—everybody’s seen as equal,” Emily says. After school, Delaney would come home and watch Finding Nemo, her afternoon treat, and when she misbehaved one day, Emily threatened to take it away. “If you do that again, you’re not watching Nemo,” she said. She’d never punished Delaney before. “It worked,” she says with a smile. “I remember saying to Mark, ‘She understands consequences!’ I remember celebrating that.”
On a Sunday morning in October near the football field at Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda, a young man named Josh is reciting the Special Olympics athlete’s oath. He’s here for the Inspiration Walk, which raises money for the Montgomery County chapter of Special Olympics Maryland.
“Let me win,” he says slowly, the crowd repeating after him. Delaney mouths the words. “But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
As the runners and walkers get ready for the 2K, Delaney and the other JOY cheerleaders, who are part of the Special Olympics Montgomery County competitive squad, make their way to the field to line up along the rope. “Girls, let’s spread out a little bit so we [don’t] hit each other with our poms,” a coach says. Players from the Georgetown Prep football team are volunteering at the race—jogging alongside the athletes to help them get to the finish line—and Delaney recognizes one of them, a boy her dad used to coach, and gives him a fist bump. “I know him,” she proudly tells a friend.
“Come on, T. You got ’em, number 9!” she yells before the race has even started. She’s here to cheer on athletes with special needs, but she’s focused on the varsity quarterback. “Run fast, like you’re in shape!”
Events like this used to be tough for Delaney. Almost every time she’d cheer in public she’d fall apart at the end and cling to Emily. But over time she’s developed more confidence. She puts on her navy and gold uniform for practice at least once a week—and a different outfit for her Shockwaves team—and hangs her medals near her hair bows in her bedroom. “All the JOY cheerleaders go to competitions,” she explains. “They say: ‘Introducing the one and only JOY cheerleaders,’ and we get up and we go crazy.”
After the run, Delaney and her friends pose for photos with the football players and start making their way toward the parking lot. There’s a DJ playing music under a small tent, so before she leaves, Delaney stops to do a few moves. At first she dances with her cheerleader friends, like she usually does, as parents gather around. Then a football player, still in his Prep jersey, walks toward Delaney with his hands pumping in the air and starts dancing next to her. She’s beaming, her mouth wide open, as if she can’t believe what’s happening. When the boy’s teammates realize what he’s doing, they run over and start dancing, too, along with a handful of field hockey players from Quince Orchard High School who are also volunteering. Pretty soon the music is blasting and there’s a group of teenagers dancing together to hip-hop music as if they’ve known each other for years.
Emily knows it shouldn’t be such a big deal that the Prep boys and the Quince Orchard girls are dancing with Delaney and her friends. But it is, she says. Because nobody planned it—it just happened—and for a few minutes they were all the same. So much of Delaney’s life revolves around activities designed for young people with disabilities, and Emily’s grateful that there’s so much out there, but it was nice to see her daughter having fun with kids she wouldn’t typically hang out with.
Ever since she started seventh grade at Tilden Middle School in Rockville, Delaney’s been in special education classrooms. It’s not what her parents wanted. They felt strongly that she would benefit from being around typical peers for as long as possible—“You shoot high,” Emily says—but they realized when she was in elementary school that she probably wouldn’t pass algebra or do well enough on assessment tests to leave high school with a diploma, so they’d taken her off that track. When she got to North Bethesda Middle School for sixth grade, teachers were adapting assignments to fit her skill level, but even with help from paraeducators she would come home from school overwhelmed. She’d gotten used to the safe bubble of a small elementary school where everybody knew her. The hallways were bigger in middle school, and at times she could barely get from one class to the next before the bell rang. One night, Delaney looked in the mirror and told her mom she didn’t want to have Down syndrome anymore. Nobody else in the whole school had it.
“The LFI program at Tilden and WJ is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to her,” Mark says. “We fought it. I fought it. I didn’t think she’d like to be in a contained class with kids with special needs like her, but she loves it.”
Emily and Mark saw changes in their daughter as soon as she got to Tilden. Suddenly, Delaney was helping other kids read and follow directions. “You need to go get your binder,” she’d say. Her anxiety lifted. The school had a Best Buddies program—which encourages friendships between students with and without disabilities—and Delaney became fast friends with a sixth-grader named Maggie, who quickly got a glimpse of what she was in for. When Maggie’s mom took the two of them to paint pottery, they arrived to find out the place was closed, and Delaney heard her new friend using a tone she didn’t approve of. “Maggie, if you keep being sassy,” Delaney told her, “we’re gonna put you in the trunk.”