Experts say kids with disabilities want to be treated like others - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Experts say kids with disabilities want to be treated like other kids

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) -

By Danielle Thomas – bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Children are children, and all children like to have fun. That's the message that organizations that serve the disabled want the public to know. Their goal is that no child feels left out because he or she has a physical or developmental disability. Seventeen-year-old Zachary Zerone is impressive on baseball field, and he knows it.

"Got two trophies, swing hard, hit hard, and I run as fast as I can," Zachary said.

Zachary is part of Biloxi's Challenger League. The program is open to people of all ages with mental and physical disabilities free of charge. The city also offers soccer, basketball, a summer camp and more.

Assistant Parks and Recreation Director Cheryl Bell said, "I've always had the concept that I think they need to be involved like anybody else. The only difference is their disability."

That message is important to Bell as the parent of a disabled child.

Bell said, "They want you out there everyday playing, everyday. They enjoy this."

Shirley Lovelace is a team coach and a life skills teacher for special needs students at St. Martin High School.

"I think services are wonderful at this point," Lovelace said. "I've been teaching special needs for 31 years, so I've seen it come full circle. From total exclusion to now moving toward total inclusion. It's come the full circle."

Janie O'Keefe remembers what disabled children faced just a few decades ago. When her daughter Kelly was born 1978, doctors weren't optimistic about her quality of life.

"They actually gave me the diagnosis to take her home and love her. There's nothing you can do," said O'Keefe. "Even the doctors were not encouraging an active life with her, so it was depressing."

O'Keefe's frustration finding recreational and educational activities for her daughter eventually led to the creation of Disability Connection. The non-profit organization has a board and is made up of two dozen organization that serve the disabled.

"We meet every month and have about 25 organizations that serve people with disabilities," said O'Keefe. "Each of us has an entire database of clients and people that we deal with on a daily basis that we can talk to, that we can email, and we can connect with."

Disability Connection is about to launch a web site with a comprehensive list of resources.

"We've already identified resources that people can get information, get activities, get community involved," said O'Keefe. "There's now many, many things out there, but what we do find is that people still don't know about them."

An exhibit at the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center teaches children about disabilities. The "What It's Like to Be Me" exhibit allows children to maneuver wheelchairs, put on blind folds and headphones to better understand what it's like to live with a disability.

Museum Director Cynthia Minton said, "I've also worked in the school setting with children with disabilities. The one thing that was always paramount in those experiences were the people who would almost overlook them. They were invisible to some. People who don't know what to say. Don't know how to react."

"It made me know that if we start young, we can introduce those children to the world as it is which is just filled with people who have differences," Minton said. "Those are the things that make up our world, and children accept that if we introduce them early, I think. "

The museum sponsors skits and other activities that children with and without disabilities can do together.

"What we've seen many times is a child explaining to another ,and why it's different. 'I have these things that I have to do differently than you.'" Minton said. "There is a tolerance that comes from that that allows that child that's not impacted to say, 'Whoa. You know what. He's just a kid.' That's what we hope."

Finding hope is sometimes difficult for parents. James Smith says it used to be tough finding activities to do with 8-year-old Courtland and the rest of the family. However, since moving to the Coast, Courtland has been able to show she's quite the athlete.

"It's fun, especially when she hits the ball and runs," Smith said. "I enjoy it. She's got a smile on her face, so as long as she's happy, I'm happy!"

The hope is to help more children find happiness by getting them active and engaged and not spending their childhoods watching from the sidelines.

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