Five Facts About Learning and Life with Ben Wynn
Albany, Georgia (Senate District 12)
If you thought you knew all there was to know about remote-controlled cars, there’s a good chance you’re either 1. wrong, or, 2. you may be Ben Wynn. Ben is the Albany, Georgia resident who, quite possibly, knows more than anyone about remote-controlled vehicles, and more than the average person about car and truck repair.
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“I guess it has something to do with my autism,” says the 34-year-old. “Everybody [with autism] has something different going on, I guess, and cars has always been my thing.”
Fact #1: Some remote-controlled cars operate with real gasoline and not batteries.
We learned this when Ben showed us his remote-control SUV which, he says, is modeled on one in the Fast & Furious movies. He counts it among his prized possessions, but, he says, it would be even cooler if it ran on gas instead of batteries. If it did, it would be made from real metal instead of plastic, and it would make sounds similar to a real car. Watching a gas-powered RC car is basically like having a real, tiny car in your home. It’s the gas-powered ones that professionals race in remote-control car races. Hold up—did you know there are professional RC car races?
Fact #2: There are professional RC car races—including one here in Georgia that takes place every few years in nearby Chehaw. Ben follows these on Facebook, although he’s never gone in person. He also follows a ton of YouTubers whose channels are dedicated to extreme car repair situations, like rescuing trashed vehicles that have been left out in the deep wilderness for years and restoring them to pristine condition.
He prefers older, vintage models to newer ones. “Old school is best,” he says. “They’re really made of steel, so if you hit something, you’ll barely make a dent.” And they don’t depend so much on computers like today’s newer hybrid and electric models do—so you can really go in there and work on them—which he loves to do.
Last fall, Ben was enrolled at Albany Tech to learn car repair. He cherished the time the class spent absorbing 15 chapters of a thick automotive textbook—but the non-mechanics classes did him in. “I am not a math person,” he says. He was planning to re-enroll and try again this January, but instead, he’s landed a new job that’s changed that. The Arc of Southwest Georgia is working to get him a car-repair apprenticeship. He’s excited to eventually make good money doing what he loves.
Ben has lived with his roommate, Jeffrey, for about five years. These days, they live in an apartment near downtown Albany. He’s lived on his own since moving out of his parents’ place in his early 20s—and that independence is important to Ben. To be clear: He’s thankful for the support his aides provide. “I mean, there are some choices I do need help with. Like, what’s the appropriate medicine I need to be taking? The appropriate amount? Doctors’ appointments, making sure I get there on time.”
But he likes living on his own. “It feels like I have more control over it myself,” he says.
Ben spent years on a waitlist for the Medicaid waiver that pays for things like the home aides who visit him each day, but now that he has it, he’s able to pursue his professional goal—and his personal ones, like cooking. (His specialty is barbecue.) This brings us to…
Fact #3: More than 7,000 people living with disabilities in Georgia are on a waitlist for Medicaid waivers that could help them to live independently for less money than it costs to house them in institutions.
In Georgia, Ben is the exception, rather than the rule.
He says that he thinks these long waitlists exist in part because a lot of people still have the wrong idea when it comes to people living with disabilities. “They think we’re not able to do things; they think it’s a disability—it’s not. It’s a different learning ability.”
Let’s go ahead and call that Fact #4. Everyone’s brains work a little differently, but we’re all capable of learning new things—and giving back to our communities.
And learning is something that Ben loves to do. In bed at night, he’ll sometimes pull one of two tomes down from his nightstand. One is Modern Automotive Technology, Ninth edition, his textbook from Albany Tech. The other is a beloved, dog-eared volume of a textbook from a baking class he took in high school, whose margins are filled with neat, pencil-written notes.
“I’ll be sitting there at night,” he says, “and be like, ‘What do I want to look at today?’”
Sometimes, he won’t know which book he’s grabbed until it’s sitting in his lap, and there he is: contentedly paging through diagrams detailing the flow of refrigerant liquid through a vehicle or a dizzying multi-step German chocolate cake recipe. He made this cake in high school baking class. But his favorite memory from the class is when they made a traditional multi-layer wedding cake, complete with pillars. Ben had to sit in the backseat of a pick-up truck, holding the cake steady en route to an actual wedding, where the cake was consumed.
He still enjoys baking. One time, he says, he stayed up late into the night baking peanut-butter and chocolate cookies and was enjoying the process so much that he made hundreds, which he then shared with his family at Thanksgiving. “That was okay,” he says, “because my sister made pigs-in-a-blanket, and she made a lot of those.” So, they traded.
This fall, Ben will keep right on learning at his apprenticeship. On-the-job training is just what he needs, he says, to really learn the trade he loves. And therein lies a lesson, he says. People with developmental disabilities do learn differently—but that doesn’t mean they’re not good at it. The key, he says, is time and creativity in teaching. “You try to teach us just one way? That don’t work,” he says. And here’s Fact #5: “You got to give us time to learn it our way. You’ve got to break it down for us, and then we break it down for ourselves even further, and then we learn how to do it.”
Writer: Kate Sweeney, Photographer: Jessica Whitley