Skip to Main Content

Advocate for Those With Disabilities Urges Classroom Inclusion

Speaker Champions Capabilities of Children with Down Syndrome


Karen Gaffney doesn't put much stock in words like limitations or disabilities. If those words had much meaning to the Portland, Oregon, native she might never have swam the English Channel, served as Olympic Torch Relay Torchbearer or earned a college degree. Gaffney has Down syndrome and she serves as an advocate for inclusion in the classroom for those with disabilities.

She is the president of the Karen Gaffney Foundation. It is a nonprofit organization that champions the journey to full inclusion in schools, communities and the workplace for people with Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities.

Karen was the featured speaker at a special presentation on October 7, at the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE). The event was sponsored by the Down Syndrome Information Alliance and the SCOE Infant Development Program.

"We all come into this life in different ways either with challenges or full of opportunities or a little bit of both," she told the gathering of parents of special needs children and special education professionals. "We will all face barriers and limitations as we work to turn those challenges and opportunities into something good to give back to others."

Karen's mission is to educate others and raise the expectations of students, counselors, educators and the medical profession of the capabilities of children with Down syndrome to learn, grow and contribute in an inclusive setting.

"Reach out to people who are different," Karen said.

She earned her high school diploma from St. Mary's Academy, in Portland, Oregon, in 1997 where she maintained a 3.0 grade point average. She was a member of the swim team, where she lettered her junior and senior year. She holds an Associate of Science degree and a Teacher's Aide Certificate from Portland Community College. While attending college she earned a cumulative grade point average of 3.41. Today, she works as an Early Head Start volunteer.

Karen also captured the heart of the world when she completed a relay swim across the English Channel, for which she and her five teammates are being honored with the 2005 Heart of Gold Award by the Providence Child Center Foundation.

The inspirational speaker offered some advice to parents of children with special needs: "Your child is the most important thing in your life. Don't give up on them."