St. Charles Herald-Guide

Hahnville grad with Down syndrome becomes advocate for those with disabilities

By Kyle Barnett - September 12, 2013

Craig Blackburn has a motto by which he lives.

“Never give up. That’s my message. Never give up,” he said. “If you have fears don’t look back, look ahead.”

That is a message the 34-year-old Hahnville High School graduate has been carrying through his entire life, and Blackburn has had to overcome a lot. He was born with Down syndrome as well as a heart defect that had to be repaired through open heart surgery when he was an infant.

Now, Blackburn has been able to accomplish so much that he has become an advocate for others with disabilities.

He is on the board of the Down Syndrome Association of Greater New Orleans and regularly travels the region and country giving speeches to educators and those within the disabled community. In recent years, he spoke to a crowd of 1,300 at Tulane University and also traveled to Qatar to give a speech.

“It’s about educators and families and their child’s future to tell them they can do it and not to give up on their dreams. When I do my presentation it is like making them believe what they can do and don’t look back,” he said.

For many years, Blackburn said he did not notice there was a difference between him and other kids. It was not until he was older that he realized what Down syndrome meant.

“When I was younger I wasn’t functioning that much,” he said. “Later on I did know what Down syndrome was after my parents explained it to me.”

After he found out what his condition was, he did not let it deter him from living a normal life.

“For me it has been not as scared as much as being happy that I know I have Down syndrome and I would like to help other people in the community,” he said.

Balckburn’s first step towards being able to help others was to help himself by getting a good education and taking the same courses as any other high school student. He said it was difficult for him, but he stayed true to his motto.

Throughout high school he said he followed a pattern every day.  

“When I got home I usually cracked the books and then had something for dinner and then got back to the books. By 10 p.m. I was in shutdown mode. Then I started fresh again the next day,” he said.

Following that pattern, Blackburn was able to complete his required courses and pass the graduate exit exam on the second try.

“I had tutoring in and outside of classes. I pushed to help me to pass. I never failed any classes in my entire time in high school,” he said.

Despite his demanding educational schedule, Blackburn also participated in numerous extracurricular activities that included serving as the football team manager for two years at R.K. Smith Middle School and for four years at Hahnville High School, playing saxophone in the band and participating in Junior ROTC.

With dreams of becoming a meteorologist, Blackburn enrolled at Nicholls State University where he also served as the football team’s manager for one season, but after one semester he decided not to pursue his college education further.

“I was frustrated. I had a schedule and a full load of subjects like social studies, science, math and English,” he said. “I was placed on probation with my grades. I told my parents that college is not for everyone and I had to drop out.”

Although he felt like he was not cut out for college, he did not let it get to him.

Blackburn worked at Winn-Dixie in Luling for 11 years before he moved out of his parent’s house and into a condo in Metairie. He was able to purchase the condo through the help of Jefferson Parish’s “A Home of My Own” program.

Now Blackburn is almost entirely independent. The only thing he relies on outside help for is a ride to and from work at another Winn-Dixie he transferred to when he moved.

Blackburn said he hopes to continue helping others with disabilities as long as he can. That includes inspiring other families who have disabled children for whom he has a few words of wisdom.

“My advice to a new parent is to educate and keep on advocating to let them know that your family is there for your child to remind them to be happy and to make them a hard worker at school and to influence other families to support them. Never give up,” he said.

Hahnville grad with Down syndrome becomes advocate for those with disabilities