By: Deb Cantrell
Austin Wayne Underwood was born in 1978 with Down syndrome. His mother has since spent her life fighting to make sure he would have a normal life. She fought the Fort Worth school system that tried to keep him segregated so he could go to Ridglea Hills. She even found a college in New Mexico where he received a certificate and lived in the dorms for a year.
“People usually hide people with disabilities. We always treated him as a little boy first and his disability second. He has a normal life,” mother Jan Underwood said.
And this summer, Austin will be married to a girl he’s loved since he was 3 years old. His fiancé, Jessica Smith, also has Down syndrome. Here is their story.
Austin’s mother had quickly become an advocate for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, fighting for inclusion to keep them in schools with peers who would one day employ Austin. She also said Austin learns by mimicking others, and when segregated with other people with Down syndrome, he wasn’t reaching his potential.
Jan soon became the go-to resource for new moms who were facing the enigmatic life of raising a child with a disability. That’s when Jessica’s mom called Jan for advice. They became fast friends, and so did their beloved toddlers, Austin and Jessica. Their entire family has spent Christmas together for 30 years now.
Austin’s proposal story will make any girl’s heart melt. Christmas 2012 he rented a limo to drive around and look at Christmas lights with Jessica while their families stayed back at the house. Jan had given her son her original wedding diamond, and he had the newly designed ring in tow. He stepped out of the limo, got down on one knee and proposed. Wedding plans are underway.
On an unlikely warm, bright day in February, Austin’s mother rushed to Dallas to get her hair done. She was attending Jessica’s first wedding shower in Dallas where Jessica lives. Austin was milling around his mother’s house as she got ready, dapper as always and smiling. He proudly showed off his save-the-date, which was a short film of the lovebirds reenacting their engagement made to look like an old Western film. The DVD was sent out to wedding guests.
Austin and Jessica decided they wanted a Western-themed wedding. Jan wanted the couple to be able to have custom boots.
“Problem is, Austin and Jessica both have short, wide, little feet, and wearing boots off the shelf is a huge challenge,” Jan said.
Jan called her neighbor and chief manufacturing officer at Justin Boots, Larry Nelson, to set up an appointment to have the boots made. Then she called her old high school buddy,
Mayor Betsy Price, and local media to bring awareness that people with Down syndrome can live normal, happy lives, and they should never be hidden by a society that tends to looks away.
Austin is the kind of guy that will look at a stranger working alone in a coffee shop, smile, ask you how your day is and say, “I’m getting married!” I know, because that’s how I first met Austin. He was dressed to the nines and grinning from ear to ear. How could I look away? All I could do was smile and thank him for making my day brighter. And he couldn’t be more thrilled to marry his lifelong friend.
“For me, it is about being a part of Jessica’s life and always being together,” Austin said.
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By: Deb Cantrell