Born Fabulous Podcast Blog Post #14 – 10 Secret Characteristics of Successful Young Adults with Significant Disabilities

Season 1 of Born Fabulous Podcast featured the stories of three successful young adults with Down syndrome: Melissa Riggio, Sean McElwee, and Tim Harris. This podcast was started to increase awareness, raise expectations, and break barriers for people with significant disabilities. It was also meant to help families learn from successful people ahead of them. Parents and self-advocates alike often have questions, and this was a golden chance to learn from people who are happy and successful.


There were so many commonalities between Melissa, Sean, and Tim, it was hard to pare them down for this piece. But here is my version of the top ten characteristics they all shared. Some of them are helpful to all of us.


1. Have a motto.Melissa Riggio’s motto was, “Know me before you judge me.” Her article in National Geographic Kids used this title, and it was how she lived her life.


 Sean McElwee’s motto is, “It could happen.” He quotes this in his speeches, and there is a t-shirt in his Seanese line that states this.


Tim Harris’s motto is, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”- by Walt Disney. Tim has mentioned this in many interviews, many speeches, and lives his exciting and full life just like this famous saying.


All three young adults were encouraged to dream big by their families, and their loved ones.




2. Inclusion. Melissa Riggio was fully included in school, from elementary through high school. She was also fully included in her community in most of her life activities.


Sean started out fully included in his elementary school, and his mom tried very hard to have him included in middle and high school, only to be denied most of the time. However, Sean made sure he was included in school life, as well as his community.


Tim Harris also started out included in his elementary school. Like Sean, inclusion was denied most of the time in middle and high school. Tim, and his family, have made sure Tim is included in his community whether it was work, sports, or most activities he was involved in.


The commonality here is all started out included, and then 2/3 were denied later on in their school years. Both Sandra McElwee and Jeannie Harris lament that in 2019 this sadly still happens to too many students with significant disabilities.




3. Determination. Early on all three young adults knew what they wanted to pursue as they grew up. Melissa loved to write, and wanted to also be a singer. While still in high school she had her poetry become lyrics to two songs by none other than Rachel Fuller, who happens to be Pete Townsend’s wife. That was just the beginning for her, and if her life had not been cut short so young, her parents, and many others know she would have written, and perhaps performed, some groundbreaking material. She had a real gift. (These two songs are used as the opening and closing music of the podcast.) 


Sean knew from a very young age that he wanted to be on the stage. Around age three. He survived extreme discrimination by his high school drama teacher, and worked very hard to improve his speech. This all led to his casting on A & E’s ground – breaking series Born This Way.


Tim has the gifts of public speaking, and loving the restaurant business. He showed these early, and by the time he was in high school, his parents could see clearly where his determination and gifts met.




4. College. Melissa, Sean, and Tim’s parents all expressed disappointment in their high school transition programs. All three families felt their high schools in NJ, Ca, and NM had very low expectations. Steve Riggio went on to say clearly that high school was not a place for students to stay after they graduated, even though the law says most can stay until at least age 22 (some states have a higher age.). Not settling for stereotypical, outdated high school transition programs with low expectations is a big takeaway here. 


Because of this, and high family expectations nurturing their dreams, each young adult pursued college.


In Melissa’s case, her parents helped found six college programs for students with intellectual disabilities in NY and NJ. Because Melissa’s life was cut short, this is part of her legacy. There is no doubt Melissa would have attended one of these programs if she had the chance.


Sean attended some drama classes in community college. Ones he was denied in high school. He was pursuing his dream.


Tim attended college in NM in a special program. He stayed four years, shadowed a restaurant owner, and gained invaluable independence skills.




5. Be nice.All three young adults were / are nice people. They were popular, not just with certain groups, but with multiple groups of students. Knowing Sean and Tim, I can vouch for how genuinely nice both are in person. And there are many people who talk about how nice and kind Melissa was.




6. Give back. Along with being nice, giving back really makes someone a good person. Melissa volunteered happily and willingly, even while undergoing chemo treatment for her cancer.


Sean’s company Seanese gives baby onesies to Down syndrome organizations around the country, along with a letter from him, to encourage new parents and help celebrate the birth of their loved one with Down syndrome.


Tim has helped numerous non – profits raise money, and continues to do so. He has run a non-profit, and loves to motivate as he gives to others.




7. The goals: Independence, love, marriage. Every young adult wanted / wants to be independent and one day married. In Melissa’s honor, Steve and Laura Riggio started a residence with apartments encouraging independence as much as possible. They did this because they knew this was Melissa’s dream.


Sean McElwee is working towards independence. He does not live at home anymore, and does have support. His goal, and his family’s goal, is to have as little support as possible. Sean definitely wants to be married one day.


Tim Harris is very independent, needing minimal support. He has lived in various places already, at the young age of 33, and travels quite a bit for his motivational speaking career. Tim is very ready to be married to the right woman.


All three families fostered the dreams of independence and love, let go when necessary, and have been there to guide and mentor their children along the way.




8. Mentors. Each family talked about having mentors ahead of them in this journey, from the times their now young adults were very young. They have also mentored families behind them.  Sandra McElwee has written three books to help families behind her. Having someone who is a little ahead of your child’s journey, and then others who are much farther ahead is recommended. Steve Riggio said, “Listen to the parents, not the professionals.”




9. The ‘It Factor’. This is something that a person  is often born with. Families can nurture this. Dr. Patty Ann Tublin says the three key ingredients are:

  • Gravitas- How you act.
  • Effective Communication Skills – Which includes active listening.
  • Award Winning Appearance – How you look. Dress appropriately. 


Melissa, Sean, and Tim all had / have the ‘it factor’. It drew National Geographic Kids, Pete Townsend, and Rachel Fuller to Melissa. It is the reason why Sean got cast in Born This Way, and is a magnet at his speeches and any public event he attends. And it is why Tim has been able to galvanize a large crowd since high school, was able to run a successful and highly publicized restaurant, and has met so many celebrities here and in other countries.


Whether one does, or does not have, this quality, I think we can all take away something helpful from Dr. Tublin’s key ingredients. Not everyone wants to be a superstar, but most people do want to be happy, liked, and successful.




10. Be positive. All three young adults, and their families, can be described as positive people.  Motivational speaker Ryan Lowe states that “Positivity determines everything else in your life.” When I look at all three families, and Melissa, Sean, and Tim, I see people who don’t compete and get jealous. I see people who lift each other up. Sean McElwee and Tim Harris live in different states, but they are friends. I know in my heart that if Melissa were still with us, that she would be friends with Sean and Tim as well. The positive attitudes each young adult had / has, along with their determination, and ‘it factors’ are certainly big keys to their success.




It was obvious to me early on that these three young adults, and their families, shared many traits or characteristics. Putting it all together has been rewarding for me, and I hope it is for you as well. Success for one = success for all. 


Thank you for caring.


From my heart,


Greta Harrison



Please stay tuned for season two. Work on that will begin in August with a release date several months from that.  It will be very different from season one, and will include self-advocates in a unique way. Until then there will be more blog posts.


If you have not heard all of season one, you can hear episodes 1-13, at your convenience, on Apple Podcasts, anywhere podcasts are heard, or  


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Infinite thanks to Steve and Laura Riggio, Sandra McElwee, and Jeannie Harris for their time, gracious natures, and wisdom. Gratitude also goes to Sean McElwee and Tim Harris for allowing their stories to be told. I am forever in their debt.