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He Goes Beyond Expectations--and to College : Down's Syndrome Victim Rises to Challenges

September 14, 1986|SHEILA BARNES

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in his backyard in Pasadena, Harold Silverman flails a Ping-Pong paddle in a vain attempt to defend himself. Hornets from a nearby nest hover menacingly above his head, but Silverman, 74, ignores them. He's too busy dodging the smashes that rocket off his son Brad's paddle.

"Hit 'em easy!" Silverman pleads, but Brad, 20, gleefully slams the winning point past him, proving that, like many young college students, he doesn't always take his father's advice.

"He's grown up now and he's very cocky," said Silverman, who shows more pride than irritation at his son's independence. When Brad was born on May 16, 1966, with Down's syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality that causes physical and mental retardation, four specialists predicted that he probably would not live past age 8 and would not be able to function. (Most victims of Down's syndrome die before 40.)

They would be surprised today to learn that Brad Silverman has not only overcome some of his physical problems but is about to begin his second year at Pasadena City College.

'Very Rare to Attend College'

"It's very rare for a person with Down's syndrome to attend college," said Susan Van Duyne, a psychologist who was formerly director of development for the Down's program at City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte.

"I've worked with handicapped children for 13 years, and although I've heard of some cases, I've never personally seen one," she said, adding that Down's patients have widely varying degrees of developmental delay.

"He is the most successful I have ever seen," said Jane Stone, administrator of student support services and special education for the Pasadena Unified School District.

Brad also plays the clarinet, is a good athlete, can speak, read and write Hebrew and is an accomplished flirt.

"He's gone way beyond anyone's expectations," said Vicki Shenkman, a resource specialist in special education who worked with Brad when he attended Pasadena High School.

"He's extremely motivated, and his parents have worked very hard with him, exposing him to a wide variety of experiences and challenges that have raised his ability," said Shenkman, who added that she knows of no other Down's student who has gone to college.

Praise Rejected Institution

Shenkman said she thinks that Brad's parents can take much of the credit.

"When he was born, the doctors wanted to put him in an institution," said Silverman, "but we were too stupid to understand that, so we brought him home."

From that point, Silverman and his wife, Billie, decided that when it came to their son, they were the experts. Billie, who often says she wants her son to be a taxpayer, not a tax user, was determined that Brad would achieve as an individual.

Believing that higher expectations would lead to higher achievement, she fought to keep her son from being limited to classes for children with Down's. But the Silvermans ran into serious obstacles as they tried to enroll their son in "normal" schools. Getting Brad admitted was difficult enough; keeping him enrolled was nearly impossible.

To make matters worse, the Silvermans discovered that progress was often fleeting. In some classes, Brad thrived, learning to both read and write. But in others, he lost ground rather than gained.

In the meantime, Brad was often sick, constantly fighting off respiratory and digestive problems. He regularly ran a fever of up to 105 degrees and could seldom keep down a meal.

But after undergoing therapy that included special diet and colonic cleansing, Brad's health

improved.

His studies followed suit and he began to advance--all the way to Pasadena High. His first year there he took all special education classes, which set him apart from most of the students.

Then school administrators and teachers decided to give Brad a shot at "mainstreaming," putting him in classes with regular students and having him work with resource specialists who helped teachers modify their courses to enable Brad to succeed.

Scared at Beginning

When he walked into his first regular class, Brad was "a little bit" scared. "It took them a while to get used to me," he said.

But the students grew to admire his steely determination as they watched him plow through the curriculum, suffering some failures but always returning to replace them with passing grades. Twice he flunked his English proficiency exam, but the third time he finished the 90-minute test in 20. He passed driver's education and even found time to take a pretty girl to the prom.

"He's very likable, and students took him under their wing. Everyone was very protective and caring of him," Shenkman said.

When cap-and-gown time finally rolled around and Brad walked to the podium to receive his diploma, the procession was stopped by a standing ovation.

At an after-graduation party, about 30 Pasadena High teachers gathered at the Silverman home to "roast" Brad. Then the guest of honor gave a speech thanking them "for all your wonderful support that made my impossible dream come true."

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