Stillman College senior advocates at UN for students with Down syndrome
Photos and words by Hannah Fields
TUSCALOOSA, Alabama – Kari Balazs nears a microphone, facing a packed room on one of the largest stages anyone could ever take: the United Nations.
Balazs, a senior interdisciplinary studies major at Stillman College, straightens her posture as she inches her chair forward. She’s confident and unmoved by the gravity of the moment. For Balazs, the message she would deliver on this day is one she’s shared since she was born: “Be with Us, Not for Us.”
Balazs has Down syndrome and was one of the featured speakers at the 12th World Down Syndrome Day Conference, hosted by the UN, in New York City on March 21. There, she shared several examples where schoolteachers and administrators listened, understood, and advocated for her to learn and work with the proper resources.
“In high school, my teachers wanted to keep me from using a calculator,” she told the audience. “They wanted my math skills to be fluent and were going to keep me from taking algebra because I couldn’t remember six times seven. I’d used a calculator to learn math in middle school, and my parents told the IEP team at my high school it wasn’t right to take away an accommodation that worked. The admin in the meeting agreed and said I could use my calculator to support my learning.”
This event gives the Down syndrome community a global platform to advocate for their rights, inclusion, and well-being. Balazs’ speech followed the theme of the event: “With us, Not for Us.”
It’s been more than a month since she’s returned to campus, where she proudly reflects on this sentiment, both in the theme of her speech at the UN and as her experiences in school continue.
“In my own heart, it means ‘Be with me,’ because if you’re with me, you’re trying to help me, but if you do things for me, I see you as a threat to my learning experience,” Balazs says.
Balazs knows she can’t truly learn without a chance to do the work herself. She doesn’t want people to make her feel like she can’t do anything. She believes she can do anything, and her speech at the UN was a way to amplify that message to a larger audience.
“I need people to teach me, not take care of me,” Balazs said in New York. “I need leaders to make laws that support my decision making, my work, and my future. I have potential, and I plan on having a fabulous life.
“Be with us, not for us.”
Balazs says “supported decision making” has been key in her development as a person and a college student. She told the UN that, during her senior year of high school, she was keen to “go to college, take classes, and get credit.” She said her mother was supportive of her goals and simply asked, “what (do) I think would be best?”
The faculty and staff at Stillman have been equally supportive, Balazs said.
“Every college professor has worked with me to help me achieve my goal of a degree,” she said in New York. “Every challenge I’ve faced in college has had a good outcome.”
Balazs said her Stillman professors have been pivotal in helping her achieve a 4.0 and induction into two honors societies. For instance, Balazs, who is pursuing a minor in history, credits Dr. Thomas Jennings, associate professor of history, for helping sharpen her writing skills.
“I’m used to writing a paragraph for (Jennings) for every exam we have, so this helped me to apply those writing skills to my speech (at the UN),” she said.
Dr. Lawrence Kreiser, chair of the Stillman Department of Social Sciences and associate professor of history, said the faculty at Stillman are proud of Balazs and find her to be a joy in classes due to her “can do” attitude with every assignment.
“Kari is hard working, intellectually curious, and respectful of others – among the best attributes that Stillman might hope to draw out in its students,” Kreiser said.