Griffen Saul never saw his father walk. He never played catch with him. The relationship between son and father was forged in the face of multiple sclerosis.
Brad Saul was diagnosed with advanced MS nine years before his son Griffen was born.
Saul was always an inspiration to his son Griffen. From his wheelchair, the Chicago-based radio entrepreneur not only founded two start-ups to improve the lives of people with disabilities, but also created the NBA’s first-ever radio network, while raising three children.
Despite his impaired mobility, Brad always found ways to bond with his athletic son. He coached Griffen’s soccer and T-ball games and took him to see the Cubs play at Wrigley Field.
He also passed on his passion and empathy for working with people with disabilities.
“I was able to connect with them in ways that others weren’t,” says Griffen, who recalls his father cheering him on from the sidelines, when he volunteered as a school buddy and led soccer games for children with disabilities.
One day this encouragement would inspire Griffen to create We Are Able, his own nonprofit, founded to increase awareness around living with disabilities.
“Anyone who knew my father, knew how much he loved the Cubs. It was an incredibly meaningful experience for me to take part in something that brought him so much joy, during a time when there was so little of it.”
When his father’s condition took a turn for the worse at the start of high school, Griffen rushed to the hospital to find his father breathing from an oxygen tank.
“Are you going to be okay?” Griffen asked.
In a weak voice, his father said yes.
But Griffen had a gut feeling things were getting worse. He realized it was up to him to carry on his father’s legacy—one dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities.
Griffen turned to WE, a nonprofit that offered free resources to youth taking action on social issues. He was inspired by WE’s founder, Craig Kielburger, who had started the organization as a 12-year-old in 1995.
He decided to email Kielburger, asking for advice. He expected to receive a polite thank you. Instead he got an email that changed his life.
“Whatever your gift, when it is nurtured and applied to an issue, this equates to a better world,” wrote Kielburger in his response. “I believe you have many gifts, Griffen.”
Kielburger challenged Griffen to use his gift for empathy to organize his own initiative and introduced him to someone at WE who could act as a mentor.
“I didn’t really have the resources to start a nonprofit,” admits Griffen. “That’s where WE came in.”
“Being on the WE Day stage was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. As soon as I stepped on stage, I was overwhelmed by the love and passion of the electrified youth that filled the Allstate Arena.”
WE helped Griffen make an action plan for We Are Able that would ultimately culminate in a launch event where students would take on a simulated impairment (like vision-obstructing goggles or arm restraints) to experience some of the effects of disability for a day.
He began reaching out through the WE Schools group he started at Lincoln Park High School, as well public speaking engagements and meetings with experts.
It was at the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities that he got the idea to develop a curriculum about respectful ways to communicate with people with disabilities. Lack of disability etiquette was something Griffen’s family experienced every day, as his father’s care situation intensified.
By then, his father’s hospital visits had become more frequent. Still, despite his deteriorating health, he insisted on taking Griffen to one last Cubs game at Wrigley Field.
As Griffen’s father’s breathing became more difficult, his family decided to discharge him from the hospital, so he could live his final days at home with loved ones. Brad Saul passed away on December 4, 2015.
The loss hit Griffen hard.
His need to carry on his father’s legacy burned hotter than ever before. He doubled his efforts. Now a senior in high school, Griffen would finish a night of homework and applying to colleges, before moving on to writing press releases and fine tuning sponsor pitches.
“It was a struggle,” remembers Griffen. “But I always had something keeping me going. I knew how proud my father would be.”
There were plenty of obstacles. The auditorium was booked on the day Griffen wanted to run his event. He relocated. People doubted the event would make an impact. He kept at it.
“I had to learn to live with rejection,” says Griffen. “I politely took their criticism and said, ‘thank you, but this is important to me’.”
His persistence paid off. Walgreens agreed to sponsor. Global Learning Models made his disability etiquette curriculum available online. FOX32’s Good Morning Chicago invited him to speak to viewers.
“On Good Morning Chicago, I had the opportunity to share We Are Able and the importance of accessibility with a televised audience. It was an out-of-body experience to be on television.”
Griffen’s event came to life almost a year after his father passed. At the beginning of December 2016, 300 students across seven participating schools packed into classrooms to discuss disability etiquette. The next day, with a deepened respect for people with disabilities, they donned their simulated impairments.
Over lunch, the larger student body had lots of questions. Griffen hung a We Are Able banner in the cafeteria and collected 500 signatures from students pledging to learn more about disability etiquette. There was one message he kept repeating.
“A disability does not define who you are,” says Griffen. “There are so many people with disabilities who are able to accomplish amazing, amazing things.”
His father had been proof.
After the event, Griffen’s mother took him aside. “You know how proud your dad would be of you,” she said to him.
“It broke me down,” says Griffen. “Everything was for him from day one.”
As We Are Able grows, Griffen plans to expand the movement to help people of all abilities overcome obstacles and take action on the issues they care about.
“I’ve always wanted to inspire people to find their passions,” says Griffen. “It’s something Craig did for me, and to pass that along is cool.”
Peter Chiykowski is a writer and cartoonist who loves telling stories that challenge people's expectations of themselves and the world. He has written about inspiring young activists for WE's special editorial sections in The Seattle Times, Ottawa Citizen and Vancouver Sun. His original digital comics won the Aurora Award for "Best Graphic Novel."