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

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.”