It was during a recess of a U.S. Senate committee hearing in Washington, D.C., in March 2011 when David Egan cracked up Al Franken.
Egan was there to testify in front of the committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Franken, of course, is the comedian turned U.S. senator from Minnesota and a member of the committee.
During a break, Franken said, “How are you feeling, David?”
Egan replied, “Is this off the record?”
Franken laughed. Actually, the whole room laughed. Egan grinned. By now he is used to surprising people, and a quick-witted response to a famous funnyman is pretty far down the list of what he has accomplished. Egan has spoken in front of groups as large as 2,000. He has been interviewed by the New York Times and National Public Radio. He addressed the United Nations and helped write the introduction to an acclaimed book.
Egan, 35, has Down syndrome, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a congenital condition characterized by moderate to severe mental retardation.” He was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison while his parents, John and Kathleen Egan, were pursuing doctorate degrees at UW-Madison. The family moved to Virginia when David was 8.
Last month, the Egans were back in Madison, a particularly meaningful return visit, in that David spoke at a seminar at the Waisman Center on the UW campus, where more than three decades ago he attended preschool and was first challenged to keep up with his non-special needs peers, a practice today known as mainstreaming.
The Waisman Center seminar where Egan was one of three speakers on July 25 was titled “Reflections on Inclusion.” David told his own story, which started at Waisman in 1979 in the early childhood program with a wonderful teacher named Becky Lewis.
“I experienced inclusion from day one in a mainstream preschool,” Egan said. “There were 12 kids and two of us had special challenges, one with autism and I with Down syndrome.”
He continued, “The preschool made a difference in my social skills and ability to interact and express myself. I had a great time mimicking my friends and I had to try hard to keep up. I learned to crawl and hang onto things to make sure I did not miss the fun.”
His family helped, too, including David in not just fun activities, but chores as well.
There was a moment when David asked his mother Kathleen, “When will I get rid of this Down syndrome thing?”
“It will stay with you your whole life,” she replied. “But it will not stop you from being successful.”
In 1984, when the family moved to Virginia, David’s first elementary school did not mainstream the special education kids. “A hard adjustment,” he said, but then, at Vienna Elementary School, when David was in sixth grade, a teacher named Rachelle Zola got him back on track. She encouraged him to think about what he could do, as opposed to what he couldn’t. She had him recite poetry in front of school assemblies.
“He learned early,” Kathleen Egan noted later, “that the disability is not an obstacle to reaching your goals.”
At one point, Zola assigned David and a non-special needs student to go out into the community together, interview people and write their stories in the school newspaper.
“Because of this experience,” David wrote later, “I was encouraged to go further and to use the media to inform the public and develop awareness about people with disabilities.”
Egan wrote that in an introduction to Zola’s 2006 book, “Simple Successes: From Obstacles to Solutions with Special Needs Students.”
By that time, David had been working full-time for a decade in the distribution center of Booz Allen Hamilton, a management and technology consulting firm, in Tysons Corner, Va. He began as a 17-year-old intern and now, 18 years later, is a staff employee with full benefits.
The company has supported Egan’s outside work as an advocate for people with intellectual disabilities.
In 2006, the year Zola’s book came out, David and Kathleen were delegates to the World Down Syndrome Congress in Vancouver. The Special Olympics have also been important in the Egans’ lives. David has competed as an athlete and serves as a Special Olympics global messenger, a role that took him to Greece in 2011, where he had his photo taken with another global messenger, Olympic figure skating medalist Michelle Kwan.
When Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver died in 2009, Richard Sandomir of the New York Times phoned David in Virginia to get his reaction.
“Her idea became a worldwide movement,” David said. “How good is that? For people with disabilities to be on center stage in front of the world? If it wasn’t for Eunice, we wouldn’t be here.”
His testimony to Franken’s Senate committee — Tom Harkin was the chairman — in 2011 was about improving job opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. At the end of his testimony, David insisted that everyone in the hearing room repeat the Special Olympics oath with him: “Let me win, and if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Of course, everyone did. I suspect it was one of the more memorable moments in the committee’s history. I know I won’t soon forget the hour I spent with David last month. I remember asking which sports he did in the Special Olympics, and he said he especially liked swimming.
“But I’m no Michael Phelps,” he said.
With all due respect to Mr. Phelps, he’s no David Egan.