Family Voices Celebrates Graduation of Youth with Special Health Care Needs And/Or Disabilities

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As any parent and young person knows, it’s no small feat to graduate from one level of schooling to another - and when a youth has special health care needs and/or disabilities, the challenges are multiplied. At this time of the year, Family Voices honors youths with special health care needs and/or disabilities, and their parents, who are celebrating graduation – including graduation from middle school, high school, and college.

Zach Friedland Graduates from the University of Rhode Island, May, 2013 - Photo courtesy of Beth Dworetzky

Don’t ever think that anything is impossible. Don’t back down to the limitations. Don’t accept the standards you’ve already reached – keep pushing the envelope of what you think you can do. Keep going until you get to what you want to accomplish.

Proud parents grinning from ear to ear. Happy students throwing caps in the air. Speeches of congratulation, acknowledgment, and visions for the future. Graduation is a time of joy and celebration. And it is a time with extra special meaning for parents of graduating youth who have grown up with special health care needs and/or disabilities.

One example of a youth who successfully dealt with his health challenges to graduate from college with tremendous acknowledgment is Zach Friedland. Zach was diagnosed at six weeks with a congenital heart defect, and has gone through a series of surgeries beginning during infancy. He began playing music when he was 5. Zach says:

“I couldn’t do the activities other kids could do since I only have three heart chambers, have a pacemaker, and experience shortness of breath, so music was a good outlet for me. In high school, I became involved with marching band, because it was something physical that I could handle. My challenges gave me a lot of unique perspective. I learned ‘If I can get through this, I can get through anything.’”

Zach quickly displayed a tremendous talent for music, and became more and more involved with musical pursuits throughout high school and college. He graduated in May of 2013 from the University of Rhode Island as an accomplished conductor and musician, who has been commissioned to compose and perform a series of band and orchestral pieces. One of these, called “American Dreams,” is dedicated to the life and work of Senator Edward Kennedy, whom Zach had an opportunity to meet during advocacy related to the needs of youth with special health care concerns. Zach was inspired to write this symphonic piece as he was driving home from a procedure at the hospital, on the day of Senator Kennedy’s funeral, reading signs along the way that paid tribute to the Senator’s life. To read more about Zach’s story, hear an interview, and listen to performance clips including an excerpt from “American Dreams,” visit

Zach shared his thoughts about graduating from college:

“I feel very proud to be graduating because it means that I’ve made the most of my college experience and life so far, and now it’s time to go on to the next step. I’m very excited about pursuing a career in music.”

Zach will be attending the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts starting in the fall of 2013. When asked what advice he would give to other children and youth with special health care needs and/or disabilities about pursuing a college education he said:

“College life is what you make of it. Don’t ever think that anything is impossible. Don’t back down to the limitations. Don’t accept the standards you’ve already reached – keep pushing the envelope of what you think you can do. Keep going until you get to what you really want to accomplish.”

Zach’s mother, Beth Dworetzky, said this about Zach’s graduation:

“Zach has spent countless nights in the emergency room being treated for cardiac arrhythmias. Rather than be admitted, he’s asked to go home so he can go to school the next day. I think going to school helped him normalize his life because it was something he could do that other kids do. He has always made school a priority, has a fabulous work ethic, and has found his passion in music. His dad and I are extremely proud of him, and can’t wait to see what he accomplishes next.”

According to a report released by the Federal Government in January of 2013, United States high school graduation rates are at their highest level since 1974, with an estimated 78 percent of students across the country earning a diploma within four years of starting high school.

However, high school graduation rates for children and youth with special health care needs and/or disabilities (CYSHCND) are significantly lower. There is not one single measure of the graduation rate in the U.S. for CYSHCND students. However, the National Dropout Prevention Center for Students with Disabilities completed a study in 2011 that showed the mean graduation rate for students with disabilities to be somewhere in the range of 56% to 68% depending on how the analysis was completed One example in Alaska is illustrative – Alaska’s 2009 high school graduation rate overall was 71%, while the high school graduation rate for students receiving special education services was 43%.

Given the apparent challenges for CYSHCND to graduate from high school, or even more daunting, from college, Family Voices feels it’s important to give an extra special congratulations to all CYSHCND students who are graduating at this time of year, and to their parents.

Lynn Pedraza, present Executive Director for Family Voices, says:

“One of our roles at Family Voices is to provide as much assistance as possible to families of CYSHCND throughout the United States. These youth deserve equitable access to educational opportunities that will help them make the healthiest, most independent transition to adulthood. We know how hard the families work to give their kids the best start in life they can. We applaud their efforts, and want to extend our sincere congratulations to everyone who is graduating.”

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Melanie Rubin
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