CHICAGO — A local college student is hitting as many area high schools as he can this year, hoping to inspire a movement and change young people’s perceptions of the disabled, one school at a time.
It was two years ago on December 4, 2015, that Griffen Saul’s father passed after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. It was also the moment Griffen decided he would do everything he could to honor his father’s dream of a world more understanding of those with disabilities.
There was never a time in Griffen’s life that his father Brad wasn’t in a wheelchair. He said growing up that way, his childhood was “bittersweet.”
“While it was tough on one hand, not being able to do all those things with my dad… It taught me the fundamental lesson of empathy,” Griffen said.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis before Griffen and his siblings were born, Brad was determined not to be defined by his disability. But sitting by his side, Griffen saw firsthand how differently people treated his dad, and how it impacted him.
“I was able to learn from my father watching him go through everyday life,” Griffen said. “He was the most resilient person I’ve ever met.”
Then on December 4, 2015, Brad Saul ran out of days, losing his battle with M.S.
“It was like a stake in the ground for me…Where I knew I had to do something to not only carry on his legacy but create a more accepting and equal world for all people,” Griffen said.
Fast forward two years, and Griffen is making good on that promise. He started a campaign called “We Are Able” to pass along what he learned firsthand.
“I want to help people understand that people with disabilities shouldn’t receive special treatment… Just equal treatment,” Griffen said.
Going to school after school, his message started getting around. Today, the program is in 20 schools with 1,000 participants, with a program for corporations as well.
The message isn’t complicated: Be relaxed. Be natural. Talk to people with disabilities directly, not to their aides. And Griffen says it resonates because there’s a “contagious atmosphere to doing good.”
“It has this domino effect… Where they’ll spread that message to their friends, creating this world that’s not only more accepting but more empathetic,” Griffen said.
His campaign caught the attention of the Allstate Foundation, which now backs We Are Able and gave Griffen the push he needed to get to even more classrooms.
“I encountered so many times in my life people not knowing how to interact with people with disabilities,” said the Allstate Foundation’s Laura Freveletti. “Griffen is the epitome of a young person really creating solutions to today’s tough social issues.”
Griffen says he feels his dad’s presence at every school visit, and hopes that school by school, his story will change young people’s perceptions of the disabled.