The Karen Gaffney Foundation
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Advocate Faces Challenges with Passion

The Times-Daily
By Lisa Singleton-Rickman

SHEFFIELD- The words disability and limitations don't mean much to Karen Gaffney.

The 23-year-old recent college graduate prefers to dwell on the things she does well -- and the list is long.

On Thursday morning, Gaffney, who has Down syndrome, spoke at the ARC of Alabama annual convention.

The event will continue through the weekend at the Holiday Inn. It is sponsored in conjunction with People First of Alabama, an advocacy group for those with disabilities.

Gaffney, an advocate for full inclusion of those with disabilities, said she put in a lot of hard work and long hours to participate in regular classes in high school and college.

Her classes in high school included all the usual subjects -- English, physics, biology, algebra and geometry. She did it all while maintaining a 3.0 grade point average.

She excelled not only in academics but in swimming. It was her passion for competitive swimming that helped her earn a school letter in the sport.

She continued swimming after high school and next month plans to swim the English Channel in a relay to raise awareness of the abilities of those society calls disabled.

To Gaffney, the 21-mile relay swim is just another goal to conquer. But it's a goal that includes the threat of jellyfish by the hundreds and frigid water. Gaffney said it is not the biggest challenge she has faced.

" I've already had four hip surgeries that left me in a full body cast each time," she said. "It was about a six-month recovery period every time, and it always meant learning to walk all over again."

Still, she kept pressing ahead.

Graduation from St. Mary's Academy in Portland, Ore., and then Portland Community College were the next steps toward getting into the work force.

With her associate's degree from college, she also earned teacher's aide certification. Again, it's about helping people.

The English Channel swim is one of many events Gaffney and her friends and family have orchestrated through the Karen Gaffney Foundation.

Proceeds generated from the relay will go to support the nonprofit foundation that is dedicated to championing full inclusion for people with Down syndrome and other disabilities. Her foundation has produced a video, " Journey of a Lifetime...Beginning with the End in Mind."

It is primarily targeted at parents who have just learned that they have, or will soon have, a child with Down syndrome. It promotes early intervention for the children.

Gaffney knows the importance of early intervention. She said she has been the recipient of her parents' wisdom, determination, and support from an early age.

"My father taught me to swim long before I could walk," she said. "I guess that's why I love the water so much today."

A second videotape is in the works, she said. This one focuses on the achievements of people with various disabilities.

"I've had a lot of experience in overcoming my limitations. A lot of people have," Gaffney said. "I'm looking forward to being the first person with Down syndrome to swim the English Channel. I'm sure others will follow, but they won't beat my times."

For more information on obtaining Gaffney's video, call the foundation at (503) 973-5130 or e-mail

The Web site is

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