Once again, we Americans find ourselves celebrating the rich history of the United States, the remarkable country in which we live.

Happy Birthday, America!

No doubt we are facing some serious challenges, including poverty, child abuse, educational reforms, crime, gang and drug problems, and the war in Iraq.

Then there is that little issue of dumbing down our culture with way too much Paris Hilton (now what exactly is it that she is contributing to society?), and those wildly out-of-control Sweet Sixteen reality TV teens, a program our young people could clearly do without. These young women (our future??) throw tantrums worthy of a the most out of control two years old (but more profane) for expensive cars they don’t need or deserve. Then, they are rewarded for their behavior with lavish parties that cost more than most weddings. While millions of children are starving…

These girls scare me almost as much as Iran, and leave me asking just one question: when exactly when did their parents lose all their control, dignity and sanity? Reality check time mom and dad–reclaim your parenting power asap! Just how and when did we become so removed from the rest of the world and what is happening in it?

Yep, these are uncertain, even frightening times, but trash television, overindulged and under-disciplined children, and celebrity worship at the tabloid altar aside, I still believe that this is the greatest country in the world in which to live.

Granted, we’ve got major work to do on our own homeland turf before all U.S. citizens fully realize the real freedoms intended by our forefathers, including for those with disabilities. And far too many of our kids need a serious reality check about what is happening in the rest of the world while we party down each day. They need a greater appreciation for the blood, sweat and tears spilled by their forefathers to ensure their daily freedoms. Too many people have died to preserve our rights, and they are dying still. How can we ignore that fact?

The good news is that in this country, it is possible to make the changes required to make the lives of all of our citizens better. We can make better choices as to how we raise our children. We can teach them compassion and tolerance and good manners. We can raise them to believe in their value and that of their neighbor. It is our very freedom of choice that empowers us each day, and gives us the opportunity to continue to make the U.S. the best country in the world in which to raise a child with special needs.

A well-spoken young woman reminded me of just that during my recent book signing in California. As she purchased a book to send to her brother in Sri Lanka, she told me that she was determined to help him advocate more effectively there for his son with Down syndrome, no easy task. We talked about the fact that many countries are still miles behind America when it comes to addressing the needs of those with disabilities, even when it comes to advocating for the most basic human rights and dignity.

As this spirited young woman shared with me her deep desire to convince her brother to move to the United States, especially for the sake of his son, I was deeply moved. She reminded me of the many blessings that we do have living in this country. Sometimes, we forget too easily.

When it comes to special needs issues, it can be easy for us to focus on what we don’t yet have, while taking for granted the painstaking gains we have made. Yet, those gains are numerous, and we must take time to recognize them in order to be motivated to create more change. We have come a long way in our attempts to ensure that our the lives of children with disabilities are the best that they can be! But the work is far from over. We need to be an example for the rest of the world; like our children, they are watching us closely.

I parented a child with cerebral palsy, a wheelchair user, for nearly thirteen years until Eric’s unexpected death in 2003, I am all too aware of the daily challenges that still face children with special needs and their families in this country in 2006, some of which are inexcusable. I know that taking on many of these challenges can be incredibly frustrating, even infuriating. I have experienced my own issues about lack of accessibility that threatened to block the rights of my child to have full public access, whether to attend a 4th of July parade or his neighborhood school. (for more about Eric, visit www.JudyWinter.com)

I’m familiar with the limiting, outdated mindset that too often permeates this country by some who still want to devalue our kids, while our society continues to raise celebrity, physical perfection and beauty, narcisism and fame, to a whole new stratosphere. I know that there is a ton of work that must be done before children with special needs, and their familes, can expect to receive the best that this country has to offer. I know there is no quick and easy panacea to resolve such issues, not even in the land of plenty.

But in the United States of America, making those changes is possible. Ground-roots advocacy is what we are built on. It’s who we are. The important, historical changes of the past on which our country’s history stands solid have been fueled by its citizens! That kind of action continue to reign supreme as we tackle the challenges of raising children with special needs to lead increasingly independent and fulfilling lives. Our voices will be heard, but only if we raise them up.

When it comes to these rights, we are miles ahead of many other countries, some of which would prefer these children not be born, and see no value in them once they are. It helps us to remember that just thirty years ago, many kids with special needs in this country were institutionalized. Today, children with similar challenges are in our communities and neighborhood schools and workforce, where they rightfully belong. That is progress, and it must continue. Each one of us is called to do just that.

Yes, we still need to address the need for valuable resources and funding for kids and families that did not follow this promise of better lives and increased freedoms for our children. That complex, ongoing struggle will not be solved any time soon. Funding and politics will always stand in the way of achieving full human rights. But our freedoms allow us to challenge such roadblocks and pursue better solutions, solutions that will move us closer to true equality for all. It won’t happen overnight. But the reality is that funding and politics don’t change lives and history, our citizens do.

In America, we have the blessed freedom to protest racism and human indignities, to speak our minds vigorously (and quite loudly) as part of our right to protect the heritage afforded us by our forefathers (who fought very hard for them). We can speak loudly as we work to try to create greater awareness of the rights and value of all human beings. Our freedoms grant us the priceless opportunity to continue to move the special needs advocacy bandwagon forward. Yes, I’m talking the same kind of freedom that makes so many of us yell pretty darn loud at many sporting events, with or without a beer in hand.

It is my hope that when we celebrate our freedom again next July 4th, we will be able to include some valuable new gains made for those with special needs. We already have the freedom to pursue needed change in this country. It’s the kind of good stuff we are built on. But it requires personal advocacy and clear, determined voices to be realized.

We must exercise our rights. Far too many people remain silent on issues of injustice and freedom for all, protecting only their own piece of the freedom pie. And we clearly lack tolerance of others speaking their minds fully, (something that seems to be on the increase) while vigorously defending to the death our own. That, too, is America. We have the right to disagree, sometimes in less than stellar ways. In fact, sometimes in our attempts to protect our own space and interests, our manners can be really atrocious, something to which the French will no doubt quickly attest. We can do better by our forefathers.

We are a loud, gutsy, loyal, arrogant and self-centered, beer drinking, SUV-driving & pizza-lovin’ noisy group, who can be also be incredibly kind and generous, smart, innovative, loving, and supportive of our neighbors, ready to stand up and do whatever battle is required to support our fellow Americans, even those who are perfect strangers, in times of need. That is America at it’s finest. Don’t mess with us (or our sports teams), or pay the big price! Our is one fierce battle cry.

So on this summer day in July, one that includes all the traditional icons of flags waving, small-town parades, chargrilled Angus steak, noisy and colorful fireworks (including from my nearby neightbors who think this holiday is about their right to hold a really loud week long midnight celebration), let’s pause to give thanks for the daily freedoms we have. We aren’t perfect, but backed by the promise of liberty and justice for all, we can build a better, stronger, more caring country and world, one that celebrates the rights of all, including those with special needs. One that will more fully include, welcome and value all children.

Tip for this week: Exercise your American rights, and speak up for your children. If you want change, help create it! Because complaining, however loudly or profane, does nothing to create important, lasting change, and it dishonors the basic rights that our forefathers and so many good folk since, have fought so hard for, even died for. This is your country, your freedom, your rights we are talking about here. Honor them with every ounce of your American being.

And whenever you are presented with the opportunity to exercise your sacred right to vote, do so. Real change, the kind that will be recorded in history, requires bold action, not just lofty words and dazzling fireworks.

Now, I’m going to go eat a hotdog loaded with mustard and pickles…right after I salute my porch flag, and my husband the chef! God Bless America!

Happy 4th!