From the moment she was born, Karen Gaffney began an incredible journey that continues today. Karen is the President of a non-profit organization dedicated to championing the journey to full inclusion in families, schools, the workplace and the community for people with developmental disabilities.
She is doing this by creating awareness and calling attention to the tremendous capabilities of people with disabilities. Karen had to work harder than her peers to graduate with a regular degree from St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, Oregon, and earned a two-year Associates of Science degree from Portland Community College. Her determination at school was matched by her determination to be a champion swimmer.
In 2001, Karen successfully swam the 21-mile-wide English Channel as part of a six-person relay team. Two years ago, she accomplished what only a few people in the world have managed—she swam the full length (more than 9 miles) of Lake Tahoe. This achievement and her ordeal swimming for hours in 59-degree water is captured in the award-winning documentary
Crossing Tahoe: A Swimmer’s Dream.
Karen’s life shows the world that people with Down syndrome are more alike, rather than different, from everyone else. She travels the country speaking to a wide range of audiences about overcoming limitations and about what can be accomplished with positive expectations. Karen tackles any challenge she faces with determination and commitment, knowing she has limits, but not allowing them to limit her drive to succeed.
In 2010 Karen participated in the Global Down Syndrome Foundation’s Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion show, where she walked the runway with Emmy-award winner Jeff Probst and was given the Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award by 2009 award winner DeOndra Dixon. That same year, Tim Shriver was also honored with the Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award.
In 2015 Karen’s captivating TEDx Talk explored the history, current state and progress of Down Syndrome. Her idea? All lives matter. Further, we must refine our vocabulary and eradicate “the R word” as the word “retard” has no place in our daily language.