'I’m treated differently': Boy with disability echoes King’s call for equality

bmilazzo@centredaily.comJanuary 23, 2014 

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    Gareth’s Essay

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his life fighting for equality for minorities. He led people in nonviolent protests against segregation. He worked for all people in this country to be treated with respect and dignity. I, too, want all people to be treated with respect. But unlike Martin Luther King Jr., I am not looking at the rights of people of different races. I am focusing on the treatment of people who have disabilities.

    I was born with a disability — cerebral palsy. Due to complications at my birth, I have many physical challenges. I breathe through a trach, eat through a tube in my stomach, and use a wheelchair to get around. Due to my weak muscles, I cannot talk like most people. I drool and cannot control my body at times. Because of all of this, people often look at me and make assumptions based on my appearance. In Dr. King’s time, people were treated with prejudice because of their race. Now I’m treated differently because of my physical disability.

    People often assume that because I cannot talk that I cannot understand them. Sometimes people talk louder to me or speak to me like I’m a baby. I use a letter board to communicate and I do understand everything that people say to or around me. People just don’t always take the time to figure this out. People also often think that because I am so physically challenged that I am also mentally challenged. This is not true of all people in wheelchairs. And people with mental and physical challenges have other talents that ought to be recognized.

    There have been many gifted people with disabilities in this country. Some are famous while others are ordinary people. One of our most well-known presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was physically disabled. He became paralyzed from the waist down after becoming ill with polio. Roosevelt did not like to be seen using his wheelchair because he was afraid people would assume he could not do his job as president. He had many great accomplishments during his time as president, including helping the poor during the Great Depression. Stephen Hawking has ALS, a disability that causes him to use a wheelchair and impacts his muscle control. Hawking is a famous physicist who has originated many theories about the universe. Hawking has worked hard to be independent and he prefers to have people focus on his scientific contributions than his disability. Helen Keller became deaf and blind after an illness. Despite her disabilities she became a famous author and spoke out for the rights of people with special needs. Temple Grandin is a woman with autism. Grandin has used her experiences to share better ways to care for animals. Michael J. Fox is a famous actor who has Parkinson’s disease. Fox continues to act while telling people about his disease and while raising money for research. Like Dr. King, these inspiring people overcame obstacles to accomplish their dreams and fight for what they felt was right.

    There are also ordinary people with disabilities doing extraordinary things around the world. Amneh Habouch is a young girl from Gaza who is advocating for the rights of children with disabilities. Amneh is an amputee and was not able to attend school at first due to her needs. After she and her family fought for her to attend school, she became a role model for other children and she led a parade on World Disabilities Day to tell others her story. Rick Hoyt is an adult with cerebral palsy. He graduated from Boston University as a special education teacher. He and his father formed “Team Hoyt” and race together in marathons and triathlons. They have become role models for other families (and are the reason my dad and I bike together now!) Karrie Brown is a teenager with Down syndrome. She models for famous clothing companies and shows other teens with needs that they can be proud of who they are. Tatyana McFadden, who has spina bifida, has overcome her disability to win several gold medals in the paralympics games and she has also competed in the Boston Marathon.

    There are so many amazing people around the world who have disabilities who are successful. I would like to bring all of these people together in many ways, just like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to bring together people of different races. I would like to organize a march so that people with disabilities can get together to walk or roll as one large group to stand up for the rights of the disabled. I would like to create a website to bring together people with disabilities. People could log on to share their own stories, and others can be inspired by the successes of those who are dealing with disabilities. I think it is important for kids with disabilities to have role models to look up to. The march and website would give young people with disabilities the chance to find people to relate to and admire.

    Martin Luther King Jr. stood up for the rights of minorities. Being disabled means being in the minority. I would love to see King’s work continued through projects that would stand up for the rights of those with special needs. People with challenges are doing impressive acts each and every day and they deserve to be recognized and to have a voice.

— Gareth Prebble hopes to one day connect the divide between the physically disabled and the rest of the population.

A lecture hall full of people Thursday night at Waring Commons cheered when Gareth, 12, presented an essay he wrote with two of his teachers at Mount Nittany Middle School.

Sixth-grade teacher Jamie Muscarella and learning enrichment teacher Debra Daggs took turns reading each paragraph of Gareth’s essay.

Gareth, of Lemont, has cerebral palsy and was the winner of an essay contest that highlighted the theme, “Reflect on yesterday. Experience today. Transform tomorrow.”

“I was born with a disability … Due to complications at my birth, I have many physical challenges. I breathe through a trach, eat through a tube in my stomach and use a wheelchair to get around,” Gareth’s essay said. “Due to my weak muscles, I cannot talk like most people. I drool and cannot control my body at times. Because of all of this, people often look at me and make assumptions based on my appearance. In Dr. King’s time, people were treated with prejudice because of their race. Now I’m treated differently because of my physical disability.”

The Community and Faculty Outreach program at Penn State invited the public to an award ceremony for State College Area School District students who had entered and won a competition hosted during the 29th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration week.

The candidates were asked to reflect on a time in their lives when they wanted to make a change for the better, said Kiena Williams, co-director for the program. The contest has been in existence for about 10 years, she said.

Each year, the contest is meant to connect the university with the local community.

“We try our best to not only bridge the gap between the two, but show that the university and the community are equally important to this area,” said Charnice Culmer, co-director. “We work with local youth and find ways they can be a part of what we do and vise versa.”

Others students entered poems and art work. Mount Nittany Middle School sixth grade student Declan Flanagan submitted a collage honoring King with newspaper and magazine clips.

But for Gareth, it was all about sharing his dream of hoping that he isn’t looked at differently because he has a disability.

“There are so many amazing people around the world who have disabilities who are successful,” he said in his essay, and gave the examples of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Stephen Hawking, Helen Keller, Temple Grandin and Michael J. Fox.

“I would like to bring all of these people together in many ways, just like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to bring together people of different races,” Gareth said.

One way is to organize a march that would represent the rights of the disabled. Another would be to created a website for disabled to share their stories with each other.

“Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up for the rights of minorities. Being disabled means being in the minority,” Gareth said in his essay. “I would love to see King’s work continued through projects that would stand up for the rights of those with special needs. People with challenges are doing impressive acts each and every day, and they deserve to be recognized and to have a voice.”

On behalf of Gareth’s class, Muscarella said there are no words to describe how proud they all are.

“He’s a special kid and an amazing young man, and this class is so proud it’s often hard to find the right words to say,” Muscarella said.

Williams revealed that through collaboration with the Community and Faculty Outreach program and the State College Area School District, $600 was raised through a coin drive for the Sue Sheridan Memorial Fund — a local fundraising campaign created in memory of a former teacher that helps needy children with school necessities.

“When the university and community can come together to benefit each other then we’ve done our job,” Williams said. “King wanted to find the equality in all and in a way, this is our way of helping pursue his dream.”

Britney Milazzo can be reached at 231-4648. Follow her on Twitter @ M11azzo.

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