Hannah Thompson's sense of humor is immediately apparent. When asked what she's studying in college, Hannah, who uses a digitized speech device to speak, replies, "I'm majoring in communications. Ironic, isn't it?"
In spite of being born with cerebral palsy and three movement disorders, Hannah, who needs assistance to speak and walk, thinks life is great fun and wants to let others know.
"I can't climb Mt. Everest, but I can change lives with my attitude and it really balances out," she says.
When she completes college, Hannah, 18, plans to become a public speaker, educating audiences about people with disabilities. But raising awareness is something she's been doing her whole life.
Hannah has chronicled her adventures as a freshman at Elmhurst College in a blog dedicated to "My College Adventures." And when people stare or treat her differently, she just turns the other way and goes on living her life to the fullest, says Jean, her mom.
"She doesn't hold any hard feelings, but she'll just find the direction around them and find the way to do things," Jean says.
"I focus on the people who make my life incredible, and I don't dwell on the things I can't do or the people who just don't understand," Hannah says. "I simply go about my life happy."
Among the people who have inspired Hannah are her parents, Jean and Dan, of Glenview. Growing up, "they encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do," she says.
Jean admits it's not always easy to follow along as Hannah challenges herself to do everything anyone else could do and then some. When Hannah came home from school at the beginning of her freshman year of high school, she told her mom, "'I found a great challenge,' and she said the speech team," Jean recounts. "I remember saying to my husband, 'Do I have to be the one to tell her she can't speak?'" But with her parents' and the school's support, Hannah joined the team and spent three years earning awards.
When she decided to go away to college, her mom worried-about a fire in the dorm, how Hannah would handle it if she got sick in the middle of the night or even who would fix her daughter's long brown hair in the morning, Hannah recalls. But Jean got to work figuring it out and Hannah went to work being a college student.
They hired people part-time to help Hannah with personal things, such as showering and laundry, but when it comes to academics, she goes it alone. Students in her classes take notes and e-mail them to her, but from there she works independently and, Hannah admits, looking back on her first few months of school, "I really impress myself."
Jean knows when it comes to Hannah's determination to experience life to the fullest, there's nothing she can do but go along for the ride. "When you're with someone with a spirit like that, what else are you going to do?" Jean says with a laugh. "Let them choose their path and if they're willing to try it, you have to find a way to make it happen. It's led to the best times of our life."
Hannah's advice to parents
"You are probably sitting in a therapy waiting room right now and have a million errands to run, but maybe those can wait. We've been working hard in therapy and maybe you can go get ice cream or, like my mom used to do, take them to the zoo. That's when the disability disappears. Parents, and especially siblings, have the power to make us feel normal."
"If they have a dream, encourage it. Don't focus on the limitations-help them fulfill their dream. You have to provide the blueprint and we can do the rest."
Liz DeCarlo is the senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.