San Antonio Activist & Organization Exemplify Why It’s Important For All To Be Included

Emma Faye Rudkin – 2020.

After losing her hearing at age 3, Emma Faye Rudkin knows what it’s like to grow up in a world that wasn’t designed for her, one filled with extra challenges and obstacles.

“My earliest memories are of being alone on the playground and just wanting to be included,” recalled Rudkin, who attended an elementary school without accommodations for her hearing impairment.

Everything was just that much more difficult for her than her peers: Rudkin spent hours re-teaching herself the day’s lessons at home because she wasn’t able to hear everything in class. She missed out on birthday parties because the invitations were extended audibly. Coaches didn’t know how to include her, so she was unable to participate in team sports. “It’s exhausting when you live your life trying to fit into a world that doesn’t understand you,” said Rudkin.

Rudkin’s disappointment turned into motivation as a teenager, when her faith helped her realize she could turn these negative experiences into something positive. “I started to see that there’s beauty behind deafness. Lots of things I experienced were unfair, but I realized I can do something for others. I thought, ‘When I’m older, I can go back to the same community and include others.’ I wanted to be the difference for kids growing up with disabilities.”

That summer, Rudkin attended a church camp, and although it wasn’t accessible, her peers and camp organizers actively tried to understand what they could do to be more inclusive. “They tried really hard,” remembered Rudkin, “and to see that was so heartwarming. It meant so much.”

Rudkin reflected on this experience many years later when, in 2015, she first visited Morgan’s Wonderland – the world’s first and only theme park designed with individuals with special needs in mind. The San Antonio park, founded by philanthropists Gordon and Maggie Hartman (whose daughter Morgan was born with special needs), has 25 wheelchair-accessible attractions.

Emma and her service dog, Hank, on the carousel at Morgan’s Wonderland.

“I couldn’t believe someone thought about how to get a wheelchair on a merry-go-round,” Rudkin recalled of her first impression of the park. “Growing up, very rarely was an experience made for me and mine. So going from that to seeing this, it was like effortless belonging. That’s what’s so beautiful, feeling that first moment of ‘I’m not striving to belong.’ All kids belong.”

That is precisely the idea behind Morgan’s Inclusion Initiative. Following the immense success and popularity of their theme park, Morgan’s Wonderland expanded to build a range of other accessible facilities. The nonprofit Morgan’s Inclusion Initiative, was established in 2020 to coordinate fundraising, planning and communication among all of their entities and to serve as a cata   lyst for other inclusion-centric initiatives, including:

  • Morgan’s Inspiration Island: A first-of-its-kind splash park with 5 splash pads and a River Boat Adventure Ride. It even provides waterproof wheelchairs so everyone can beat the Texas heat.
  • Morgan’s Wonderland Sports: A three-acre fitness and athletics complex made for people of all abilities to enjoy. It is also home to Special Olympics Texas’ San Antonio.
  • Morgan’s Wonderland Camp: A 102-acre oasis of fun for everyone! It offers year-round camp experiences and inclusive outdoor activities, such as a wheelchair-accessible challenge course and ziplines that can accommodate guests requiring ventilators and oxygen masks.
  • The Multi-Assistance Center at Morgan’s Wonderland, The MAC: The MAC will offer a unique, one-stop-shop model that provides all medical and non-medical services for individuals with special needs. The MAC is currently under construction, completion is slated for 2022.
Morgan’s Inspiration Island, photo courtesy of P. Michael Jones photography.

In addition, Morgan’s Inclusion Initiative is committed to community involvement in its home of San Antonio (proclaimed “Inclusion City, USA” in 2015). The nonprofit organization has been actively involved with accessibility improvements at City Hall, Bexar County Courthouse and San Antonio International Airport; participated in the COVID-19 Community Action working group; and established the Let’s Help SA Emergency Fund in the aftermath of the February 2020 winter storm, raising over $3 million to assist hard-hit San Antonians.

The foundation also provides a wide variety of educational programs and sports and recreation initiatives, including educational programming, support and resources for family members and caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s disease; an inclusive performing arts program; and community-based STEM education. Everything is designed with accessibility in mind, centered around their mission: inclusion.

“That’s why I love Morgan’s,” said Rudkin. “I don’t have to fight for access; I just show up and they’re ready for me. What Morgan’s has accomplished – it changes the atmosphere. The accessibility portion is put first, and people who don’t need this access are invited, too – so it’s the opposite of what you’re used to. It’s a really beautiful, redemptive story.”

Rudkin noted all of Morgan’s Inclusion Initiative entities aren’t just for those with special needs – everyone is welcome to join in on the fun. And doing so may offer an important learning opportunity. “Whether you run a business or just want to learn how to be more inclusive, you should visit Morgan’s to see how it’s done – see how they build things, see how they create a truly inclusive environment,” said Rudkin.

Having experienced both ends of the inclusivity spectrum – exclusion in school and in aspects of daily life, contrasted with the inclusion of a place like Morgan’s – Rudkin is living out her goal of making a difference for current and future generations. Today, as a motivational speaker and advocate for the deaf, Rudkin shares her experiences (and expertise) publicly to raise awareness and create a more inclusive world for those with disabilities.

Emma and Gordon Hartman at Morgan’s Wonderland.

“It’s an ironic twist,” said Rudkin. “Growing up, I was most made fun of for my voice – and now the very thing I was made fun of for is what I do for a living!”

Rudkin is also serving a second term on the Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities, a bipartisan committee that works on issues affecting Texans with disabilities. “I’m very honored I get to be in this role and work with Governor Abbott.”

For Rudkin, the tireless pursuit of inclusivity hasn’t been without its bumps in the road – but that doesn’t discourage her. “I’ve felt like a guinea pig most of my life. I’ve often been the first one on-site who is deaf, so I have to ask for help, demand change,” she said. “Being invited is not the same as being included. Sometimes I’ll be invited to speak somewhere, and they forget that I need closed captioning, or they forget they need to accommodate my service dog, Hank. But it’s always a teaching moment. It’s so important to keep going… If you don’t fight for access now, the younger generations aren’t going to experience what’s fair.”

For those who are inspired by her story, Rudkin noted there are many ways someone can get involved in the movement of inclusivity: · Donating to nonprofit organizations like Morgan’s Inclusion Initiative is one of the most impactful ways to directly support accessible and fully-inclusive experiences.

· Having a deaf ally or someone with a disability as an ally to help you avoid assumptions, walk you through what their experience of a place or situation would be, and truly understand what they need in order for it to be accessible.

· Inviting people with disabilities to speak at a work meeting to listen to someone else’s perspective.

· Visiting Morgan’s Wonderland or one of the other fully accessible entities of Morgan’s Inclusion Initiative to see an excellent example of places that lead with inclusivity.

All Morgan’s Inclusion Initiative entities are 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity organizations that rely on the continued support of individual, corporate and foundation donations. To learn more about Morgan’s Inclusion Initiative or to support their journey of inclusion visit InclusionStartsHere.com.

Article reposted with permission from MySA.com.