Washington, D.C. – Tyler Greene, 18, of Waterloo, is one busy guy.
The recent West High School graduate played percussion in his school’s award-winning marching band and appeared in a local theater production. An Eagle Scout and member of the National Honor Society, he enjoys karate, music, church activities, movies, and surfing the Internet.
This fall he’ll head to Hawkeye Community College to major in public administration.
Oh, and by the way, Greene has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. He also has obsessive-compulsive disorder, a nonverbal learning disorder, and anxieties.
But he refuses to let his disabilities define who he is or what he can do – a way of looking at life that brought him to the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday for the 18th anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
”.Ability awareness” was the theme of a DVD called “I’m Tyler – Don’t Be Surprised” that Greene, with the help of friends, made for his Eagle Scout project. It can be seen at the Web site www.ImTyler.org.
The DVD initially was distributed to all 365 school districts in Iowa. But it found fans beyond the state’s borders, with organizations in all 50 states and 18 other countries asking for copies. Some 5,000 have been sent.
Greene has received the United Church of Christ National Disabilities Ministry Award and the National Council for Exceptional Children “Yes I Can” award.
Wednesday, the DVD was shown to members of Congress invited by Rep. Bruce Braley, a Waterloo Democrat who has known Greene since he was a baby.
“Eighteen years ago, there was a vision kids like Tyler would grow up in a world where they could do whatever they wanted to do,” Braley said. “The Americans with Disabilities Act is not just a piece of paper but something that has meaning for all of us.”
Greene told a crowd packed into a meeting room that the “ability awareness” he talks about in the DVD really wasn’t about him. “It’s about all these amazing people who practice ability awareness,” he said. There was the band director who “won’t let me off the hook,” or the Scout leader who insisted he play softball with the rest of the boys, just with Greene’s dad pushing his wheelchair around the bases.
They saw Tyler and not a disability, he said.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., an author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, arrived late to the event but still was in time to shake Greene’s hand.
The act “was a labor of love for a long time,” Harkin told Greene and his parents, Paul and Gina Greene.
But to see Greene today and his accomplishments, “it was worth the long fight,” Harkin said.
Greene said in the DVD his life would be “totally different” without those who have helped him.
“Is there someone you know who needs you to have an open mind?” he asks. “Please, make a difference.”
By any measure, Eagle Scout Tyler Greene (2006) lived an extraordinary life. In just 31 years, he filled his cup to the brim with family love and close friendships, adventures, and exceptional service above self.
Tyler and his family threw out the word “can’t” when Tyler was very young. There was no place for “can’t.” For Tyler, cerebral palsy and other disabilities simply didn’t matter. Professionals consistently advised what Tyler wouldn’t be able to do. And Tyler just as consistently did them.
For Tyler, whose exemplary life was cut short in November 2021 after an SUV struck his wheelchair, his legacy is as inspiring as the remarkable life he led. Tyler modeled every point of the Scout law, particularly being trustworthy, loyal, kind, cheerful, and reverent.
“While Tyler’s perspective in life was from a standpoint of disability, his attitude was for everyone marginalized by our world today. He was adamant that way,” his father Paul Greene, also an Eagle Scout (1970) said. “Tyler believed we are all made in God’s image…everyone. He was fine with who he was. He wouldn’t have changed a thing, even if he could. That’s a difficult concept for most to comprehend. It was simply who he was. He had no regrets. Despite being told what he would not be able to do, Tyler spent a lifetime of doing,” Paul said.
Four generations of the Greene family have been active in Scouting, starting with Paul’s father. One of Tyler’s two nephews is a new Cub Scout. This, Paul said, would have thrilled Tyler, who loved his family, especially his nephews, niece, and godson.
Despite the preference of the school district, Tyler was fully included in school from preschool through high school, which allowed him to make and keep friends from an early age. He graduated in 2008 from West Waterloo High School in Waterloo, Iowa. Tyler earned an associate degree at Hawkeye Community College and a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Northern Iowa (UNI).
Never one to sit on the sidelines, Tyler enthusiastically continued the proud Scouting tradition in the Greene family. Despite moving about in a wheelchair, he loved the outdoors and participated in all the usual Scouting activities. From participating in Pinewood Derby as a Cub Scout during his early days of Scouting, to later taking part in activities like rock climbing, winter campouts, and volunteering at the National Scout Jamboree, he fully participated in Scouting.
As a member of Troop 2 of the Winnebago Council in Waterloo, also his father’s troop, Tyler did not want to be considered “special.”
“Scouts are Scouts. Tyler was just a regular kid whose dream was to change the way the world interacted with folks with disabilities,” Paul explained. “Tyler enjoyed Scouting a lot, and it was no different for him than for any other Scout. That was because of the Scout leaders we had.”
In addition to his adventures in Scouting, Tyler enjoyed playing softball from his wheelchair, doing karate on his knees, and being in the water, which he loved, “though he sank like a rock,” his father remembers. “The point was never special treatment, simply fair accommodation. He was a gamer, loved theater, and all kinds of music. He was the person you wanted on your trivia team,” Paul said.
This willingness and desire to do whatever anyone else did became the hallmark of Tyler’s life. With support from his parents, siblings, Scouting volunteers, friends, and caring school administrators, Tyler embraced his cerebral palsy and other disabilities.
Tyler followed his passion for speaking out on a subject that was of utmost concern to him. His Eagle Scout project was a short educational DVD about ability awareness, defined as the skill of recognizing that what someone can do is much more important than what they can’t do. The popular DVD titled “I’m Tyler…don’t be surprised” was distributed to all Iowa school districts for training of educators and administrators. It is still available on Tyler’s website, www.ImTyler.org. Over 13,000 of these DVDs have been requested from all 50 states and 29 countries. It has been translated in five other languages and, by the most conservative estimates, has touched over a million people.
In 2008, Congress held a reception in Tyler’s honor to celebrate the 18th birthday of the Americans with Disabilities Act where they asked him to speak on Ability Awareness. This led to his membership on several local, state, and national committees and councils. He gained such a prominent reputation that he was called upon to review and offer edits for a hefty State of Iowa manual for paraeducator standards. For Tyler, it was all in a day’s work.
Because of the success of the DVD, he was asked to provide keynote presentations at dozens of local, regional, and national conferences with audiences ranging in size from 100 to 1,800 people. Through his quick wit and humor, Tyler put the audiences at ease. The wheelchair was soon forgotten as the audience laughed and learned with Tyler.
Public speaking was an extension of the awareness and advocacy activities he had begun when he was just eight years old. At that time, he began teaching along with Paul and his mother, Gina, in the classroom of a professor at the University of Northern Iowa. The professor was so impressed with Tyler’s powerful presence and inclusive message that upon her retirement, she funded an endowed UNI scholarship in his name.
Since Tyler’s passing, his message of hope has continued through his parents’ advocacy efforts and through various scholarships and endowments celebrating his life and achievements. They are supported by the Tyler Greene Fund at the Waterloo Community Foundation. One of these awards is the Tyler Greene High School Senior Scholarship.
“Unlike so many other awards that are given, this scholarship is not based on academic achievement or extracurricular activities or even community service hours. It’s about acknowledging someone who has, by their actions, treated other people the way that we all should be treating each other,” Paul explained.
“The young man who won the scholarship is someone who repeatedly stood up for those who are marginalized by our society—not just people with disabilities, but people with different ethnicities, races, genders, and sexual orientations. He is just a fine young man.”
It is a fitting tribute to the outstanding young man for whom the award is named.
“At Tyler’s passing, we became much more aware of how many people he touched that we never knew about,” Paul said, noting all the cards and communications that flooded in from people they didn’t even know.
“But Tyler did. When he was out on his walks, people would come out of their houses to talk with him. As someone said, there were simply no strangers in Tyler’s life, just people he hadn’t met yet.”
Tyler Greene has big plans. The 22-year-old University of Northern Iowa student wants to write a book, get a job, and make enough money to outfit his own place with a big-screen “high-def, surround sound” TV.
After years of hard work, those goals are now tantalizingly close. The Waterloo man is on track to receive his undergraduate degree in sociology next spring and he’s already thinking about where his career could take him.
But for thousands of young Iowans like Greene, the path is not is not so clear-cut. Greene – who has cerebral palsy, a non-verbal learning disability and obsessive-compulsive disorder- credits his success in school and in life to parents and teachers who never accepted less than his best. He was one of four keynote speakers to address educators and advocates gathered Monday in Des Moines for the kickoff of Iowa’s first-ever statewide special education conference.
“I was lucky enough to have teachers who walked the fine line of helping me without doing it for me,” said Greene, who uses a wheelchair. And in Iowa, just how to accommodate children in special education continues to be a challenge. The achievement gap between students with disabilities and their peers is the worst in the nation, according to data gleaned from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
On average, special education students finished 57 percentage points behind their classmates on the fourth-grade reading exam. The gap between students with disabilities and those without was 58 percentage points on the eighth-grade math test. Yet on Monday, Greene told educators that his story shows that diagnosis is not destiny. The college student uses a laptop computer to complete his school work, and studies using ebooks. Because Greene lacks fine motor coordination, a university “notetaker” literally lends a hand in lecture classes.
But the expectation remains that Greene can and will perform at the same academic level of his peers. Living with a disability shouldn’t give teachers or individuals permission to lower the standards, he said.
The nearly 1,200 conference attendees chuckled as Greene described how he managed to join his friends for a trail ride atop a horse. (Hint: “Duct tape has lots of uses.”) And using a wheelchair didn’t earn him any favors on the softball field, he noted. ”I’d hit the ball, and my dad would push me around the bases,” said Greene, who has been an advocate for students with disabilities since 2006. “I didn’t get any extra outs; no favors.”
The conference, called “Pursuing the Promise,” continues today, with more discussions about how to improve the school experience for the state’s more than 60,000 special education students. Likewise, Greene plans to keep speaking on behalf of children with special needs.
The young man has been part of national campaigns aimed at breaking down barriers and is in the process of forming an Iowa group to promote equal opportunities for people with disabilities. Boosting academic outcomes for special needs students starts with educating teachers and parents that anything is possible, said Greene’s mother, Gina, who accompanied him to the conference. Adapting a lesson may take more time, creativity or energy – but teachers need to believe that students with disabilities can learn.
”We knew what we wanted for our other two kids, and we wanted the same for him,” Gina Greene said. Greene received a standing ovation from conference attendees following his hourlong speech.
Ramona Ubaldo of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission said Greene’s story showed the importance of including people with disabilities in every sector of society, including the classroom. ”Everybody has the ability,” she said. “It’s about figuring out how to make it happen.”
Greene’s advice? Instead of focusing on what students can’t do, find out where their abilities lie. All students deserve to dream big he added. “I’ve met a lot of people, but I’ve never met anyone with dream impairment,” Greene noted.
Hi… I’m Tyler.
Last year, I was privileged to receive the National Disabilities Ministries Award at our UCC General Synod in Hartford. What an awesome trip that was! The worship service with about 10,000 people was just breathtaking. I wanted to tell everyone about it, but I didn’t have the words to describe it.
I received the award because of my passion for spreading the message of Ability Awareness. (And I’m going to take this opportunity to exercise that passion right now.) Ability Awareness is simply the skill of recognizing that what a person, any person, CAN do is much more important than what he/she can’t do. That simple concept has been used mostly by people interacting with students who have disabilities of some kind or another, but it really applies to anyone… because we ALL have abilities, don’t we?
Ability Awareness is being communicated mainly through a short DVD I created, with a lot of volunteer help, as part of my Eagle Project for Boy Scouts. Originally, it was to go to the 365 school districts in Iowa to be used for training teachers and administrators.
But before I could get them delivered, something strange and wonderful happened. God put his finger right in the middle of my project, and it went places I never imagined. I started to get DVD requests through my www.ImTyler.org website from all over the country. In six months the DVD was being used in all 50 states and in a year it was also in 18 countries and territories. Wow! God had a job for me alright!
It has been two years since the DVD was made, and I have had requests for over 5,500 DVDs. They are being used by colleges and universities as part of their regular curriculum… and they are being used by schools, businesses, youth organizations, non-profit organizations, service providers, and on and on for orientation training, workshops, classes, and conferences. It’s unbelievable… and wonderful!
In that time, I have learned that the world seems to be ready to hear about Ability Awareness. There are so many incredible people out there who really care about others, aren’t there? I have been asked to speak at trainings, workshops, and conferences from Boston to Missouri. I must admit it’s somewhat intimidating standing on stage in front of several hundred teachers, but the response to Ability Awareness has always been very positive wherever I go.
This summer one of my opportunities was to go to Washington DC. My Congressional representative, Bruce Braley, and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin invited Congress to see my DVD, listen to me say a few words about Ability Awareness, and then ask questions. Katy Beh Neas, a VP of Easter Seals, hosted the reception which was a celebration of the 18th birthday of the ADA and also the opportunity for me to showcase Ability Awareness. Besides members of Congress, many organizations were there who have offices in Washington DC. It was an awesome day, a great audience, and a great place to spread the message.
There have been a few organizations besides our UCC that have honored my mission and recognized the importance of Ability Awareness. The Iowa Chapter of CASE (Council for the Administrators of Special Education) awarded me the first annual “Tyler Student Achievement Award” and scholarship, a namesake scholarship award now given annually to a student. I was really touched by their gesture and generosity. My efforts in Ability Awareness and Self-Advocacy were also recognized by the National CEC (Council for Exceptional Children) at its annual conference in Boston. Twenty-eight “Yes, I Can” awards were given to recipients from around the world. Senator Ted Kennedy received a “Yes, I Can” award that day, too. It was very exciting to be sitting on the same stage with him. And I received a congratulatory letter and signed book from him. That was way cool! It’s been great to have those special opportunities to spread the message of Ability Awareness.
My mission has opened doors for me and given me opportunities to serve in other ways. I was asked to be the first student member of the Iowa Special Education Advisory panel, which I’ve done gladly for the last two years. Getting into the legislation and budgets of education was a real eye-opener for me.
I still serve, also, on the KASA (Kids As Self Advocates) National Task Force. There are eight of us from around the country that meet via conference call monthly to discuss issues related to disability rights and advocacy.
I’m also on the YMCA ‘Together We Play’ Advisory Board to help promote community programs that welcome everyone and are prepared to serve everyone TOGETHER. That’s really important! And I now am also a member of the Community Partnership Advisory Council that assists in the programming of medical and therapy services offered to people with disabilities and their families in Iowa. I’ve met so many awesome people in these groups!
This two-year journey is just the beginning and it has been incredible! I was a junior in high school when it all began, and now I’m in my first year of college. So marching band, theatre, karate, and Scouts are behind me for the time being while I immerse myself in new college activities. It’s hard! It’s been a tough transition for me, but I love it! And once again, I’ve found that there are lots of awesome people who care. Isn’t that why we are all here … to care for each other? I think so.
The people who really know me and care don’t see the wheelchair, the cerebral palsy, the obsessive-compulsive disorder, or my other challenges. They see me … Tyler. They see what I CAN do, not what I can’t. They practice Ability Awareness, whether they realize it or not.
They’re the ones that inspired my Eagle Scout project, the short training DVD called “I’m Tyler … don’t be surprised”. It’s the beginning of what I hope will be a long journey. And it was a project originally funded by my church family at First Congregational Church UCC in Waterloo, Iowa. I guess lots of life journeys begin at church, don’t they? Mine did.
WASHINGTON – When visiting the nation’s capital, Tyler Greene likes to stroll along the National Mall and gaze up at the statue of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When Greene admires the memorial of the country’s 32nd president, he sees a great man who led the nation through some of its darkest years, a man who happened to use a wheelchair because of a disability.
“They actually have a statue of him in his wheelchair, which is really cool to see,” Greene said.
Roosevelt’s life represents an ideal Greene, 18, is dedicated to spreading. The Waterloo West High School graduate lives with cerebral palsy.
Wednesday, during a celebration of the 18th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Greene spoke to several members of Congress about ability awareness. Greene focuses on what he can accomplish, not on the limitations of his disability.
An experienced public speaker, Greene said he became more nervous than usual when he addressed the influential crowd. Nonetheless, he had longed to speak in front of just that crowd since he visited Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, in Washington last year.
“It was very satisfying for us to have one of Tyler’s dreams to talk to congressmen about ability awareness come true,” said Tyler’s father, Paul Greene.
Paul and Gina Greene treated their son just like their other two children as he grew up and encouraged him to pursue any activities he liked. Tyler didn’t need much pushing. Through the years, he was active in Boy Scouts, karate, band, theater, and student senate.
From a young age, his mother said, Tyler showed a natural ability to connect with people. So he started speaking when he was around 8 years old to educators.
“He’s always had a great ability with people and a good sense of humor. That has gone a long ways for him,” Gina Greene said.
Tyler gained worldwide recognition after he created a video, ‘Tm Tyler (don’t be surprised)” for his Eagle Scout project two years ago. It has since been distributed to all 365 public school districts in Iowa, lo all 50 states and to 18 countries.
His efforts have garnered him several prestigious awards, including the 2008 “Yes, I Can” Award from the Council for Exceptional Children.
If all goes according to plan, this will not be Tyler’s last trip to Washington. This fall he will attend Hawkeye Community College to study public administration.
He hopes the degree will help make advocacy work a career that takes him to all comers of the globe.
“I’ve gone around the country to speak, but I haven’t gone out of the country,” he said. “Maybe one day I’ll go to Europe – that would be awesome.”
Contact Jens Manuel Krogstad
at (319) 291-1580 or