Houston Vandergriff was born with Down Syndrome. While many doctors told his parents that he wouldn’t be able to achieve much in life, Houston, at age 23, has managed to chase his passion for photography, win awards for his work, and inspire countless people along the way. Houston, and his mother Katie joined us on Inclusion Europe Radio to talk about Houston’s journey. This is the interview.
Can you tell me a little bit about your disability and describe to the people listening to us, how it has affected your life?
Houston: Well, I have Down Syndrome and I can do anything.
Katie: You can do anything, yes. For people that aren’t familiar with Down Syndrome, that’s an extra 21st chromosome. Every human has 46 chromosomes that come from 23 from their mom and 23 from their dad. And then people that have down syndrome have an extra 21st chromosome. So, we like to think that Houston is a guy with something extra.
And you said that you’ve always enjoyed taking pictures. So, tell us a little bit more about your journey as a photographer, you know, from falling in love with it at first, and then now you’ve won awards. You’re doing great.
Katie: Houston has always like taking pictures. When he was little, we gave him a disposable camera and then as he was a little bigger, we had a point and shoot camera. And then for high school, he got a very nice Nikon digital camera. And we got to looking at Houston’s pictures and some of them are really, really good. And so, we started entering them in different competitions, submitting them to different places, and he’s won the best exotic travel picture in one competition. And in 2020, he won an international photography award that was given out in the United Kingdom. And so, it’s just been really cool to see his pictures make an impact at different places. I think he has a view of the world that’s very beautiful and sees the beauty in the world. And I think that’s what comes out in his pictures.
And what’s your favourite thing to take photos of?
Houston: Cities and people, and some flowers.
Katie: Houston’s photography with people is really kind of special because he makes people feel at ease. You know, usually when you hold up a camera, everybody kind of freezes and puts on a fake smile but Houston is able to make people feel very comfortable. And he worked as an intern at the Oak Ridge national lab, and anytime they would need a picture of a group of people, they’d sent Houston to take the pictures because everybody just looked better. Even in a corporate setting, it was kind of fun to have him.
You’ve been to quite a few European countries. How did you like Europe?
Houston: It’s good!
Katie: Houston’s dad is doing work in the south of France and that’s really what has allowed us to be able to travel because we’re able to go there with him. And then we just use that as a springboard. We want to see everything. The European countries have so much history and art and culture that is way different from the United States, and Houston always brings his camera. One of the things with Houston and language is he is still in speech therapy now, and with down syndrome, the muscles around your mouth tend to be a little more lax. And so that makes speech more difficult. So, language has never really stopped Houston, even in English. And so, to interact with people from different languages is not a problem at all. He can make friends wherever he goes.
In general, do you think that people with disabilities have to work extra hard to achieve their goals because of the stereotypes that exist in society?
Katie: I think you know the answer to that is definitely, yes, people see either visual cues or they kind of see a label and then they have a mental bar on what they expect people to be like. And a lot of the labels are just based on outdated stereotypes. And there’s so much with medical technology that is helping people with disabilities to fix issues that were fatal earlier. The world is changing for people with disabilities, but there are still outdated stereotypes. And we’re trying to work to change that this at least a little bit in our little corner, and we’re excited for what you guys are doing, because I think if there’s enough of us working for change, then that perception can all be modified.
And so many times people don’t look beyond the disability. But what we have found is where somebody might have an issue in one certain area. A lot of times then they have extra special strengths in different areas. And so, our society can look and say “oh, they’ve got this so they’re less of a person”, but we’re finding out is they’re more of a beautiful person. They have different senses and strengths that are just way better.
Houston, you are very active on social media. I follow you on TikTok!
Katie: On Easter Sunday, Houston and this sister made a video. And, um, it was just the second TikTok ever that we had posted. And we were sitting around at Easter dinner and someone looked at their phone and said, oh my goodness, Houston, this video is getting a lot of attention. And so by the time we went to bed, I think there were already over a million views. Now there’s very close to 10 million views and it’s really cool. Cause it’s been shared. There, there were no words in it. It was just a video with the English subtitles on it. And we’ve seen that video being spread around with different languages on the video. And so it’s really become a universal thing.
I did watch this video and it captured a lot of information in just a few seconds. And I think that’s what a lot of people liked. So I’m very happy that this video went viral. This sort of videos are so important. How did this response make you feel, Houston? Did you expect it first of all?
Katie: We didn’t expect it at all. We’ve been slowly posting Houston’s story on Instagram for the last few years. And, uh, we’ve had a pretty loyal following base there, but not anything like what’s happened with TikTok.
I see that you’re very supportive of Houston. I’m sure your entire family is. How important has the support of your family been in achieving your goals?
Houston: I have my sister, and my best buddy, and mom, my grandma and my aunts.
Katie: Houston has two sisters and his best buddy is his dad , and his grandma is very close, and Houston has really pulled us all together. We are team Houston.
We also talk about how important it is to have a supportive family. Families can really make a difference in the lives of people with any sort of disability.
Katie: I think when it comes to families, a lot of times within an initial diagnosis, there’s kind of a grief period, I guess, but then once you get through that part of it, which again, is based on outdated stereotypes, then you can really see the beauty in that. And it’s been fun to get to know families of people with disabilities, particularly down syndrome is kind of our area of speciality, but it just brings an extra layer of love and a layer of understanding and a layer of compassion. Houston’s best friend is named Alex. And Alex’s mom said that she feels sorry for anybody that doesn’t have a family member with down syndrome.
Now, Houston, in your most viewed TikTok video you talk about how people told your family that you won’t be able to achieve much because you have Down Syndrome. So, I want to know what is your message for young people who have a disability and are told the same thing that they will never be successful?
Katie: I think that it’s kind of been interesting this past year, because until then we’ve not really even mentioned that Down Syndrome is a disability. And so I guess it’s easy for people to look at a person and see something and go “oh, you know, I do feel so sorry for you”. But what they don’t understand is there might be an area of strength for that person. And that might actually be, uh, a real gift. And so the sympathy is, is placed in the wrong place.
A few days ago, I spoke with a girl who is in a wheelchair and she was taught actually in school that she is not going to achieve anything. She’s not going to be successful in life. And nobody wants to work with somebody who has a disability and now she’s very successful. People with any sort of disability, often hear that they’re not good enough, or they’re not going to achieve something. And in the few months that I’ve worked at inclusion Europe, I’ve seen so many people prove them wrong time and time again. And Houston is such a good example. So I’m very, very happy to see that.
Katie: I think that the fact that a teacher would tell anybody that is ridiculous. It’s not for them to make that call and that’s not for them to be the judge. And if they’re not careful, people can internalize the bad things that people say. If you know someone with a disability, it should be your responsibility to pour good into them, to pour hope and possibility.
We have a campaign going on right now about the employment of people with disabilities. And we always say that if you accommodate any sort of professional scenario to people with disabilities, you can gain so much as an employer and a company.
Katie: Houston works at a, a local thrift store. His coworkers say that the job is so much better on the days that he’s there. It’s secondhand items. He helps people take the items to their cars and he sets up the displays. He photographs some of the items for the internet and I think he works really hard. He comes home tired.
I can see that you guys have a really nice bond and that’s wonderful to see. So you’re not just a mother, you’re also a friend to him.
Katie: He’s probably my best friend. Except, who’s your real best friend? His dad is probably his real best friend.
Houston: He’s my best buddy!
That’s so sweet. Do you have anything else to add?
Katie: I guess what I would like to say is that we are so grateful for what you’re doing. There are so many little pockets of people trying to make a change that I hope that we can make an impact all around the world. And I think a lot of it is just a lack of education. The more that we can get out there and the more that we can share and encourage and help, the more everybody wins.
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Listen to the full interview here.
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