LAUREL HILL — John Corson sat in the living room of his mother’s home on the Walton/Okaloosa county line on a chilly March day, clutching his bear, named Thief, on his lap.
“He named it that because his cousin used to run around and try to steal it from him,” laughed his younger sister, Jolie Williams. “He would say, ‘Don’t take my bear, you thief!’ And the name stuck.”
John suffers from a developmental disability and has the brain of a 7- or 8-year-old child, his family says. The 53-year-old's room is filled with stuffed animals, toy cars and trophies. The Laurel Hill man goes to an adult day training facility three days a week, and the remaining four days he spends in his home with his family,
Following a pair of local tragedies in recent months involving adults with special needs, Corson’s family, as well as adult care professionals, are speaking out about the need for greater awareness and acceptance of adults with disabilities.
In November last year, a 40-year-old mentally challenged man was found dead a day after he wandered away from his caregiver at a Destin sport complex. Then, in February, a Niceville man was charged with two counts of attempted murder after he tried to bludgeon his wife and 49-year-old disabled son to death with a metal mallet, saying his son's round-the-clock care had become "too much" for him.
The local families and professionals want to highlight the unique struggles faced by families who are tasked with caring for a special needs adult.
“There are a lot of challenges to having a child like John,” His mother, Diane Corson-Williams, 73, said recently while sitting in her Laurel Hill home recovering from knee surgery. “There are things you don’t even think of.”
“If you have no family and no friends to help, it can be tough,” said Williams. “It’s not an easy life.”
‘He’s not just a sack of groceries’
John’s story starts in an orphanage in Lebanon.
Diane and her late husband were stationed at a base in Beirut for the military in 1965, and, thinking they could never have children naturally, decided to adopt.
“There were all these infants in the room at the orphanage with no windows,” recalls Diane. “We went in that room and he (John) just followed us with his eyes and every time we looked at him, he smiled. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t leave him here.’ It was just like a death sentence if I left him there.”
Diane knew John wasn’t like the other babies. With only half of a brain, most likely caused by difficulties during childbirth, he was developmentally disabled, and was sure to face an uphill battle. But Diane knew from the minute she saw him that he was meant to be hers.
“All I really cared about at that time was that he was very happy all the time and he had a good personality,” Diane said. “I knew there would be easier babies to take care of. But I loved John.”
Diane and her husband eventually secured a visa for the baby boy and brought him to the states, where he was soon joined by sisters Kerrie Stillman, now 50, and Jolie Williams, now 46.
From the outset, John’s parents faced challenges getting people to accept their handicapped son. One doctor even questioned why the couple had adopted him at all.
“The doctor said, ‘He’s not going to live anyways.’ He wanted to know why I didn’t adopt an American in the first place,” Diane said. “I remember thinking, ‘he’s not just a sack of groceries. I can’t just take him back.’”
Diane says it was also a struggle getting John into a “mainstream” school and getting him invited to birthday parties and outings with other children.
“Back in that time, handicapped people weren’t accepted,” she said. “He went to a special school most of his life. We tried to mainstream him, but it was difficult to find anybody to take him.”
Her daughter, Jolie, also adopted a child with developmental disabilities, and said the challenges of getting people — especially children and their parents — to accept other kids with disabilities is staggering.
“People will invite the ‘normal’ children to their birthday parties, but not the special one,” she said. “I think the biggest thing people should know is ... don’t forget to include the special child, because they want to go to birthday parties too.”
Fifty-three years after doctors told Diane her baby with half a brain wouldn’t live to walk, talk or ride a bike, John is “thriving,” his family says.
He can’t cut up or cook his own food (though he is an expert at popping popcorn in the microwave, Jolie says), and he can’t bathe himself. He doesn’t have the finger dexterity to wipe himself after using the restroom or brush his own teeth.
But he is very social and loves talking to people. He enjoys floating in the pool when the weather is warm and spends hours in his yard picking up sticks and leaves and putting them back down, and has been caught more than once reading books and catalogues in the middle of the night.
He also has an ear for music — particularly songs by Randy Travis and George Jones — and a love of cars.
“If you play a song, chances are he’ll know the lyrics to it,” Jolie says with a laugh. “He used to know a car just by the shape of its headlights. He would say, ‘That’s a Chevy, that’s a Ford,’ and he’d be right nine out of 10 times.”
John’s low functioning means he isn’t able to get a job, move out of his mother’s home or expect any form of independence.
Still, his family says they’re lucky, as they are able to send John to an adult day training facility three days a week.
John attends Resources for Human Development in DeFuniak Springs, a day program that serves adults with developmental disabilities and provides them with daily living skill training, vocational training and recreational skills.
His family says having a place for John to go during the week is critical to his well-being,
“They pick him up and bring him home,” Jolie said. “They try to teach him basic life skills, like basic math, and for the higher-functioning people they even teach them how to find jobs and apartments. It all depends on what the individual is able to do.”
The other four days a week, his mother and stepfather, Sandy Williams, take care of him.
Sandy quit his job with the City of Crestview about a decade ago to help care for John as Diane’s health began deteriorating. Sandy spends most of his days with John, fixing him lunch, helping with his hygiene and entertaining him.
Sandy loves John like his own son, he says, and wouldn’t trade their time together for the world.
But five hours a day, three days a week, at the adult day training facility isn’t always enough of a break.
“I miss work, but I enjoy taking care of John,” Sandy said. “But it’s round-the-clock. Sometimes I’d like to have just a couple of hours where I could just get a bush hog in a field somewhere.”
Between Diane, Sandy, Jolie and Kerrie, John has a vast network of family members who understand his special needs and are ready to care for him if one person can’t.
“It’s just something we know we can count on,” Diane said of her family members. “We’ve always got somebody to fall back on to help us with John.”
“The only time we ever get anybody else to watch John is once every two weeks on Friday nights,” Sandy said. “They let us go to Walmart and they sit with John.”
Having a strong support network is critical when caring for a disabled adult, Kerrie said. Special needs adults often have quirks, routines and behaviors that need to be carefully understood, not to mention various medical and hygiene needs that a non-disabled adult or child might not have issues with.
“Not just anybody can take care of a special needs person,” she said. “If you have an average child, you can just leave them with a babysitter. With a special person, you really don’t have as many people to fall back on, and you rarely have friends that are willing to do everything.”
John’s family consider themselves lucky to have found his adult day training program, as many of the programs locally are either unheard of or not easily accessible due to funding issues.
Kerrie said that outside of the local Special Olympics community, there’s not a strong support network for people in the special needs community. As a result, they often feel isolated or ostracized.
"I think people see a disabled child and they're accepting of that," Jolie said. "But they don't really know how to take a disabled adult. They might assume that he's drunk or on drugs. That's something people need to realize, is that there's nothing wrong with him."
But despite all of the challenges of raising an adult with special needs, John’s family says they wouldn’t change him for the world.
They also hope that more people come to accept and understand people with special needs.
“Most people are afraid to get close to anybody with disabilities, and that’s all they want,” Diane said. “John loves nothing more than meeting new people, and the first thing he does is hug people. But a lot of people just shrug away from him, and that’s heartbreaking.”