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West Jordan Journal

Mountain Heights Academy outstanding graduate: a unique voice

May 30, 2022 06:08PM ● By Jet Burnham

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

When she was born, Julia Reardon’s doctor believed her cognitive abilities would not likely progress enough for her to even recognize her own parents. Eighteen years later, Julia is graduating from high school with a 4.0 GPA, a published piece of writing, and the respect of her peers and teachers.

“She is one in a million, and working with her has changed my life for the better,” said Sara Layton, Julia’s English teacher. “Despite the struggles that may seem insurmountable to some, she has emerged as one of my top students in English, and one of the most inspiring people I have ever met.”

Julia is a nonverbal, functional quadriplegic. Through the use of augmentative and alternative communication devices, modified sign, keyboards and fingerspelling, she reveals her intelligence, kindness and determination.

“I am disabled, however, the word “disabled” means something completely different to me than anyone else,” Julia said. “It defines me, like having blue eyes defines me. It is part of who I am. My scars remind me of grit, perseverance, and battles won. It reminds me that I have more than earned my right to be here. Knowing this also humbles me. For everything that had to line up for me to exist right now makes me acutely aware of how much of a gift life is. I am here for a reason and knowing this inspires me as well as scares the daylights out of me.”

Julia uses her unique perspective to educate others.

When students were assigned to recite lines from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” for an English assignment, Julia came up with her own interpretation of the assignment.

“Julia created a video with original photographs of herself and other people that have been marginalized, set to music and quotes from Shylock's famous speech ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed,’" Layton said. “In this beautiful video, Shakespeare's message came alive with her modern, personal application. All who viewed this video were profoundly moved.”

Julia loves to write, and uses her skills to help break down barriers and normalize people with disabilities.

“I just like writing about things and the protagonist just happens to have a disability,” she said. “It doesn’t shape their psychological profile, just is, because if it becomes commonplace, then there’s no big deal about including us.”

One of her essays has already been published as part of the The Humanities Moments Project through the National Humanities Center.

“I love it when I get recognized before they find out I have a disability because then I know it was really about the work,” she said.

That is why she opted to attend Mountain Heights Academy, a virtual charter school.

“I did not put my camera on at first so everyone just knew me by what I turned in,” she said. “So then when they met me, my disability was a nothing burger [no big deal.] In my brick and mortar school before, they took one look at me and lowered expectations. I got very, very frustrated.”

Julia has impressed students and staff members at MHA. School counselor Cara Wilson said, “She has a true gift for words, although she does not speak. Julia expresses herself in a way that is exceptional for anyone, let alone someone with a severe physical disability.”

“Over and over again this year I have been astounded by her wit, insight, passion, and intelligence,” Layton said. “Any day that I feel tired or overwhelmed as a teacher, I think about Julia and the privilege it is to teach her, and I am humbled and gratified that I get to know and work with her.”

Julia said often people look at severely disabled people and assume that because they don’t speak, that they don’t think. She is grateful to have adaptive technology which helps her communicate. There are many more options now than when she was younger, but her mom still needs to “mcguyver” adaptations to everyday items to make them more usable.

Wanting all students to have access to these types of tools, Julia has used money given to her through the Make-A-Wish Foundation to purchase adaptive equipment for special education students at Title 1 (low income) schools.

“If they have something that lets them be successful, it is a cumulative effect, since so many kids in general just need that one thing, that one time, that can change their opinion of themselves,” she said.

Julia has inspired others with her many accomplishments, which include completing a triathlon, and hundreds of charity races with her dad, Joe Reardon, and three Ragnars as part of the Neuroworx mixed-ability team.

Julia’s mother, Anita Miller, is excited to see what the future holds for Julia.

“As much as she’s done, there’s so much more that she can do,” she said. “If there’s something she really wants, she feels she can do it. I love the fact that with everything she’s been through—not all great—she still has such a good heart and wants to make the world a better place, even though the world hasn't been that kind to her.”