Monday, March 14, 2005

“Think Ability First”
The Community Booster 3-14-05
Jeff Gill

Ability. We rarely think about the everyday actions we perform, from walking across a room to driving a car. We just do.
Disability is more vivid in our minds, whether a temporary loss of capacity like a broken leg or sprained wrist, or the prospect of something larger and long-lasting.
If some one is described as “having a disability,” that kind of thinking leads to our defining a person by that lack, or absence of ability.
Ashley and Danielle and Stephanie and David don’t see their world as a list of what they can’t do, or at least no more than any other high schooler does. Thanks to Rhonda and Dorothy and Raydelle and Molly and dozens of others, children as well as adults with special needs see themselves as people with abilities. Do we?
MRDD Awareness Day and Month is designed by the Licking County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (you can see why they go by MRDD, can’t you?) as one of many efforts they take on to help the wider community “Think Ability First.”
How can you stop from seeing what someone can’t do as their defining characteristic? Well, one way is to put yourself in their shoes, by working a wheelchair through doors and down hallways, or wearing vision-limiting goggles. At first you are all about what you can’t do, but the gentle hints of those who live with these situations and a little persistence can show how you “do different” what you’re used to doing another way.
Or you can simply walk alongside, and learn that from adaptive technology to dogged persistence to a whole lotta love, there’s always a way.
Think ability first, says the MRDD Board, and you see a thousand Licking County residents in a very different way.
Awareness Day was an event involving some 40 community members invited to start a morning at the E.S. Weiant Center (formerly known as the “Starlight School”) with breakfast together and a brief orientation, followed by breaking into teams of 2 to 6 members visiting various locations where special needs students, young adults working on the transition to independent living, and working people with disabilities at the LICCO workshop and other sites through Community Employment Services. They ended their experience with lunch back at Weiant where participants shared what they did and saw with each other.
MRDD also works very closely with the Licking County Schools and their Educational Service Center, which provides appropriate education experiences for children from kindergarten through age 22. While many are able to graduate in one form or another, some need special services to get ready for as much independent living as they can.
This writer was with a group that went to one of three high school based multi-handicap units, or a “MH room.” Every child needing such services through their individual education plan, or IEP, has access, but not every school has their own program and intervention specialist with aides.
Children from five different districts in the county were beginning a series of exercises when our Awareness Day group arrived. The roomful was grouped by skill level rather than by grade or simple age divisions, but the exercises were done by everyone, including visitors, who were considerably less flexible than the 14 to 19 year olds.
Rhonda Taylor, the room coordinator and intervention specialist at the Granville High MH room, explained that these were exercises designed not so much to stretch the muscles as the mind, working left and right limbs over to the opposite sides, which forces the two sides of the brain to work together. This is one “stretch” that most of us could probably use to start a day, but is particularly useful for many of the students in the MH room.
We saw how each child has their own “objectives list” for the day and week, tailored to their own unique situation. When they reach 10th grade level, they also take an alternative assessment version of the Ohio Graduation Test, just their peers all across the state this week.
After some time for individual work, most of the group was scheduled for a field trip to Newark and “The Citadel,” formerly the YWCA building. Licking County School ESC has a program there for transitioning to independent living, where life skills are sharpened and aimed at their goals for their later years. Raydelle Matthews, the specialist there, was cooking a lunch that tempted us all to veer off our plan, but she invited us to just walk around the room with our escorts and join the activities.
Playing ball with young adults who are legally blind, like Robin, seeing crafts prettier than anything their guests knew they were capable of making, or getting whooped on at cards by almost anyone there (who had the disability at that table?) were some of the experiences to be had while other students worked to set up for lunch.
Here, as throughout the system, MRDD caseworkers are in close consultation with the school staff, but particularly as the emphasis shifts from the more academic to primarily vocational after age 19 or post-graduation. Adult services, with CES and the LICCO workshop, create a safety net for these able, but vulnerable members of our community.
Licking County MRDD is funded largely through our own local tax levy, some federal and state funding, and small amount of revenue. Their activities go “around the clock and around the county” in the words of Sherry Steinman, MRDD’s public relations director.
At the closing luncheon, participants like John Gard of Park National Bank noted their amazement at “how vast a transportation system it takes to do this work.”
Nancy Neely, the superintendent of MRDD, spoke of their “huge responsibility to connect with the various service programs around the county.” That kind of co-ordination, between a variety of organizations and structures, is something that is often beyond the skills of the “regularly abled,” let alone those who need assistance. From the preschool at the Weiant Center, the ten ESC school-based programs around the county, and through the work-based settings all the way to the Licking County Aging Program, people with special needs are all around us, aided and served well by the staff and volunteers of LCMRDD. Your purchases may have been made or wrapped by their clients, you may have eaten off of dishes they wash, or a bed you slept in during the ice storm was likely made by a CES worker. They are a vital part of our economy as well as our community.
Together, they invite us all to “think ability first.”

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