The following article appears in Spirit magazine's 2nd quarter issue for 2005. Spirit magazine is a publication by the Special Olympics.
Lynn Johnston, the creative genius behind one of the most popular comic strips of our time, For Better or For Worse, lives in the small town of Corbeil, in Northern Ontario, with her husband, Rod, a dentist. They have two grown children, Aaron and Katie. For Better or For Worse debuted in newspapers on 9 September 1979. It now appears in over 2,300 newspapers in 25 countries worldwide. It is translated into eight languages.
Johnston's comic strip is about the Patterson family and they are not entirely fictional - the characters are broadly constructed from the family and friends of the Johnston's. For 25 years, Johnston has detailed the lives of Elly and John Patterson and their three children, Michael, Elizabeth and April, captivating the hearts of millions of devoted fans. The story lines are poignant, wry, funny and easy to relate to because they are about real life situations that include everything from joy, crises and everyday annoyances to growing up, coping, and social issues - even tragedy (a heartbreaking series ended in the death of the family's beloved dog, Farley). It is real in another sense too: the characters mature and get older along with the rest of us, learning as they go.
When people opened their newspapers and turned to the comic strips over their morning coffee on 23 October 2004, it was a brand new day for fans of For Better or For Worse. Lynn Johnston's new character, "Shannon Lake," reached out to steal readers hearts and shake things up; life was about to get a bit more complicated for the characters in the comic strip too. "Shannon," who has an intellectual disability and likes pizza, music and going to the movies was introduced in a seven-day story line in For Better or For Worse. As with Johnston's other characters, Shannon is modeled after someone she knows: her niece, Stephanie Haskins - and the resemblance is remarkable. Special Olympics caught up with Stephanie, who lives in Ontario, Canada, to find out more about her and get her opinion about this new "regular" in the comic strip.
Although "Shannon" is 15 years old and Stephanie is 23, the opening story line was Stephanie's idea - recaptured from a real life experience in high school. There too, she had integrated classes in home economics, as well as art and drama, where students with and without intellectual disabilities learned together. And though it wasn't totally idyllic - there was occasional teasing and non-acceptance - she said she loved high school and misses it.
Today, Stephanie's life is a beehive of activity and she's thriving. "I've had my own apartment for almost two years. Living independently is amazing; you can do whatever you want, whenever you want to," she said (including cooking what you like to eat - you won't catch her eating broccoli, but she loves pizza). "The best part, she asserts, is doing things on her own. Yet Stephanie has a great support system too, through daily contact with her parents, who live close by, her older brother, Kevin, and her job as a receptionist at a sheltered workshop.
And with tons of friends, her social life buzzes with music, movies and Special Olympics, where she competes in aquatics. She and a pal from work go to Special Olympics practices and events together. "Special Olympics is a wonderful organization. It's fun and I look forward to going every time."
Yet Stephanie still finds time to act as a "consultant" for Johnston's For Better or For Worse comic strip. "When people read about 'Shannon,' I hope it helps teach them how to act with people with intellectual disabilities and how to accept them," Stephanie said. "Don't judge by looks or disability; try to accept everyone for who they are. We [people with intellectual disabilities] can achieve wonderful things," she added. "'Shannon' is a good way to get the word out all around the world about people with intellectual disabilities, and I think we are doing a pretty good job."
Evidently so, judging by the amount of fan mail 'Shannon' is getting. Stephanie said it's all supportive and personally touching - she responds to many letters herself.
Not only is Stephanie helping to change attitudes about people with intellectual disabilities through her alter-ego, "Shannon," but she gets to relive those glory days of high school too. According to Stephanie, "It's so awesome!"