Ray Morris is a father of two. Zachary, his 27-year-old son, has intellectual and developmental disabilities. Ray is the founder of Dads 4 Special Kids, a member of The Arizona Developmental Disability Planning Council and an Engineer/Paramedic with the Scottsdale Fire Department. This Father’s Day, we chatted with Ray about what it means to be Zachary’s dad and how Dads 4 Special Kids plays an important role in his life.
For you, what does it mean to be a father of a son with a significant disability?
I am blessed to be Zachary’s father, he’s the right son for me and I’m the right dad for him. It doesn’t mean things are perfect but we’re both growing. We share a special and unique bond that enables us to have a deeper love. Zachary didn’t do the typical things that a child does like play baseball or football. I had to learn his value system and what’s important to him. When I go into his room in the morning and he sits up and looks up or when he lays his head onto my shoulder and just relaxes, I know that he is happy by the way he responds to me and embraces me in his style. It is a privilege and honor to receive his love.
Society gets locked into the importance of being the mom or dad of an NBA player. That’s wrong. It is the relationship between the dad and the child that’s important. When you have a child with special needs, it’s not about the accomplishments of the child or about what he is going to do. It’s an unconditional love for each other no matter what and supporting your child to live life to their level.
Did you always feel that way?
No, I went through a period of adjustment between what my life had been and the future vision I had for Zachary. Reality wrote another script. Zachary was born with a rare brain disorder and began having seizures around age four. I had to deal with my own shock and grief in my way. I had to learn to identify how I felt about Zach, how I felt about this new life, and take ownership of those feelings. Kelly my wife had to do the same, then we could help support each other deal the emotions.
Do you have other children?
Zachary is 27, and my other son, Tyler, is 25. Being Zachary’s father, I am very mindful of Tyler’s feelings and his upbringing. As Zachary’s sibling, I’m witnessing Tyler becoming a man with a great sense of compassion for others that accepts the individual not just the physical attributes.
How else has your life changed since Zachary was born?
Before Zachary was born, I used to love adventure racing. However, training for those events took too much time away from my family. Although that chapter of my life has closed, I am fully aware that self-care is important and I am now involved in recreational soccer. It takes less time away from my family and I can play in an adult soccer league with Tyler. I value my relationship with my wife, Zach and Tyler. I’ve learned that I can’t make them happy. However, I can be involved in the things that are important to them and support their happiness.
How has your wife supported you on this journey?
Kelly, my wife, wants to support me, but we deal with our emotions differently. It’s like my wife has a PhD in emotional expression, and I am in grammar school. We’ve had some challenges learning how to express and listen to each other’s emotions. It’s also challenging not to take ownership of each other’s emotions. Thanks to Kelly’s support, I wouldn’t be the husband, father, and man that I am today.
Tell us about Dads 4 Special Kids.
Dads 4 Special Kids is a support group for fathers. We have monthly meetings where dads can come together to talk. We also have one meeting that includes breakfast. Dads can bring their kids and not worry about how others will react if the kids start acting up. We also host marriage support and Resilient Relationship workshops. Another focus of the group is emergency preparedness planning in the family. I am a firefighter, so I know the importance of planning and informing the fire department of what will be needed before an event occurs.
The Arc recently launched the Center for Future Planning. What role do you see Dads 4 Special Kids playing as you plan for Zachary’s future?
My son Tyler has agreed to be a co-guardian of Zachary’s when my wife and I can no longer provide support. Tyler doesn’t know the ins and outs of the disability system. I want Dads 4 Special Kids (D4SK) to come alongside Tyler and help him support Zachary. D4SK aims to be an organization that will come along side dads who have children with special needs and walk with them through each stage of life. Our hope is that our experiences as fathers will better prepare new fathers who are beginning the journey.
Do you have any final thoughts for dads on Father’s Day?
I’ll be honest – having a child with a disability is challenging for a family. I want to provide fathers with the encouragement and support they need to address these challenges. We want to help these men step up to the plate and be prepared to navigate those up and down moments. We want those fathers to know they are not alone and that this journey will be unique and rewarding.
We thank Ray for sharing his story with us, and we wish him a very happy Father’s Day. For more information on Dads 4 Special Kids: www.d4sk.org. For more information on The Arc’s Center for Future Planning.