Maurice + Ozzie Guillen = a good team for autism services

Ozzie and Maurice

This past weekend was another annual holiday gala for Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago. More importantly, it marked another beginning of Easter Seals and what future lies ahead. Many people showed up to support many different services Easter Seals has to offer through the Chicago area, and many guests had different stories to tell. From what I learned by attending these past events, people help each other out from time to time, and Easter Seals is the appropriate organization where many people help one another.

The memorable highlight of the evening was a special appearance by White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who is a great spokesperson for autism. Yes, it was the same Ozzie Guillen who has visited the Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago’s new state-of-the-art Therapeutic School and Center for Autism Research last year, the same White Sox manager who attended the unveiling of White Sox Field (a softball field designed for people with autism). White Sox Field is adjacent to the new Easter Seals Therapeutic School and Center for Autism Research on Chicago’s West Side, and Chicago White Sox Charities donated $1 million to the new facility — the largest direct contribution to the project.

It was great to see a philanthropic figure come out and share words of wisdom with Easter Seals once again. I have to say it was a privilege to reunite with Ozzie this time around because when I first met him this past summer, I was a little shy and didn’t know what words to say then. But right now, I was overjoyed to shake hands with a great celebrity once again. By meeting him, we instantly became fast friends. Not only because, just like president-elect Barack Obama, I am a die-hard White Sox fan and have been for the past 25 years, but I appreciate what Ozzie is doing for Easter Seals and autism. His words inspire hope and future for families with many different challenges and we support him 100% on this campaign.

Meeting Ozzie for the second time is a blessing not only to me and my family, but also for the people of Easter Seals. I guarantee there will be positive changes later in life for Easter Seals and Chicago. If I could tell Ozzie something, it would be, “Thanks for what you do for being a part of the Easter
Seals family. You are a true ‘role model’ for Easter Seals and I hope you’ll stay committed to this organization for years to come.”


A tragedy in Wisconsin

Empty … that’s how I feel after reading this tragic story in the Wisconsin State Journal about a murder-suicide. Kyle Dutter, a boy with severe disabilities, was murdered by his father, who then took his own life.

In the Journal’s story, more is shared about what challenges Kyle faced living with severe disabilities than the child he was. His obituary and a Web site created by his father reveal a whole lot more than a diagnosis.

What a tragic story — the stress that parents and families feel is hard to imagine. What a shame that it may have led to such a horrible thing in this instance. It just makes our work at Easter Seals, and the urgency around it, all that much more important.

I don’t have words to put anything in perspective, but I thought I should open up the discussion for you to share your thoughts, your fears and your dreams as your family lives with autism and other disabilities. Maybe in your reflections, we can find some ways to avoid this tragedy from repeating itself.


Autism, amplify, Austin

Greetings from beautiful Austin, Texas. I’m sitting outside with my talking computer during a 15-minute break from sessions at the 2008 Convio Summit. Convio develops the software Easter Seals and a number of other non-profit organizations use for online fundraising, advocacy and Email marketing.

I first found out about Convio when I participated in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Technology Opportunities Program (TOP). Easter Seals used a TOP grant to work with Convio to create web content management tools for people who are visually-impaired.

Interns who were blind or visually impaired were recruited from all over the country to work with the software and learn web content management skills. I was one of those interns, and after my internship, Easter Seals Headquarters hired me to moderate the Easter Seals and Autism blog. That’s why I’m here — the Convio Summit brings together non-profit organizations from all over North America to exchange ideas.

Already this morning, I ran into (not literally — my guide dog Hanni is doing a great job!) Margi Colston from the Autism Society of America — we sat together during the keynote address.

At lunch I sat with a woman named Shana, who works with Amplify Public Affairs. Shana told me about LDpodcast — a blog about learning disabilities. “I think she’s coverring autism topics now, too,” Shana said. “Is that something you’d be interested in?”

It was. And now, out here in the sunshine, I’m taking a moment to share that info with you. Time’s up, though — gotta get back for the next session!


We were there: Obama’s acceptance speech in Chicago last week

A week ago today I was emailing all my friends to give them the big news: my husband Mike and I had been lucky enough to snag tickets to the Obama victory party in Chicago’s Grant Park. We were there when the president-elect gave his acceptance speech.

Since then I’ve read many accounts of the well-behaved crowd at Grant Park that night — “all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages.” So far, though, I haven’t read any mention of people with autism or other disabilities being there. So today I’m writing this quick post to let you know — we were represented, too!

I left my Seeing Eye dog home that night — I thought the crowds might be too much. We only live four blocks away from Grant Park, so I knew we could get home to her quickly if necessary. I brought my white cane to the party instead, and Mike was my “sighted guide” as we waited and waited and waited to get in the park. There was a heavy police presence, especially on horses — more than once Mike had to route me around a big pile of dung!

In keeping with that theme, we staked out a spot near an oversized handicapped porta-potty once we made it into Grant Park. I used that lovely facility once, and when I came out an official approached us and said, “you know, you can stand over there if you want.” He pointed to a wide wooden ramp were people in wheelchairs were sitting.

We moved there, which meant Mike could see the stage. Two older African-American women were standing next to us; they were with a friend in a wheelchair. The women were spunky — they were having fun, calling friends on their cell phones and all that, but at the same time they were pretty serious. They didn’t want all the pageantry to make them forget how important this day was.

The crowd was huge, but mellow. Kids were texting, calling their friends, and constantly checking their iPhones for updates. “It’s like Woodstock,” said Mike, “except instead of drugs, people are using electronic devices!”

Well, there’s “change” for you! When McCain came on screen to give his concession speech, you could hear a pin drop. No one booed. Everyone listened. Respectfully. It was a memorable night, that’s for sure. And when President-elect Barack Obama got to the part of his speech where he said:

It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled …

Well, I cheered. For all of us!


Obama’s commitment to people with autism and other disabilities

Easter Seals congratulates President-elect Barack Obama on his election win. Easter Seals in Washington, D.C., and Illinois both have a strong working relationship with Barack Obama and commend his strong commitment to persons with disabilities.

The Obama-Biden team has specific policy positions on disability that are aligned with Easter Seals’ priorities. You can view their disability plan and their autism spectrum disorder Plan on the Obama-Biden Web site.

Easter Seals pledges to work with members of the incoming 111th Congress and the new administration on legislation benefiting people with disabilities and their families.


Comparing FDR and Obama

I’ve been very lucky to be involved in the disability rights movement for more than 20 years. I work in Washington, D.C., and when the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial was completed here, I gained a better appreciation of that president’s legacy as a role model for people with disabilities. Literally hundreds of people with disabilities have told me that their parents said if FDR could be president, they could be, too. Today, millions of African American parents are having the same conversation with their kids.

I am especially optimistic about one aspect of the Obama presidency: education. President-elect Obama is the product of a caring family, the potential for learning, and opportunities to demonstrate his abilities. My hope is that his leadership will result in expanding similar opportunities for students with disabilities.


“Yes I Can!” — Obama victory inspires Maurice

It has taken a few days to gather my thoughts after the excitement of Tuesday. I wasn’t able to go to the Obama rally in grant Park, but I enjoyed every minute of it on television! Before the election I held a mock election at the Therapeutic School and Center for Autism Research to encourage all staff and students here to exercise their vote. I also passed the word to people via email, facebook and MySpace: Get Out and Vote!

As an individual living with autism, I feel people with disabilities deserve a second chance in life. Voting gives those of us with disabilities a second chance in life because we are the ones who can make it happen ourselves. If you don’t react to some of the problems, chances are you and the country will face more obstacles. That is what I’ve been used to during the 25 years of my life.

As far as voting in an election goes, I feel Americans with disabilities are equal to others because we all have one thing in common, which is saying what’s on our mind. And after Tuesday, the one thing I want to say is this: YES WE CAN!


20 million voters with disabilities expected to vote

I’m about to put Hanni’s harness on so she can lead me to my local polling place. Sounds like this year I won’t be alone.

The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) reports that nearly 20 million people with disabilities are expected to vote in this election.

“A 20 million strong voting block can easily decide a presidential election, and in this great country, elected officials respond to those who vote,” Dickson {Jim Dickson, Vice President for Government Affairs at AAPD} said. “We look forward to working with the newly elected president, Congress and state and local officials to improve employment and living conditions for the nation’s largest minority.”

Dickson says the expected increase in numbers of voters with disabilities is due in part to the $850 million in federal funds allotted from Congress to improve voting accessibility.

I can’t wait to put those headphones on, crank up that talking voting machine and make my choice independently and privately — just like my fellow American citizens do.


A last-minute look at the candidates

Five days until the election. If you are still undecided, here are some links to information on each presidential candidate’s view on autism and other disability issues.

The Autism Society of America (ASA) website features a presidential election resources page with full statements by Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.

If you prefer going directly to each candidate for information, the McCain campaign’s website highlights his healthcare and education policies, plus a statement about autism. Obama’s homepage and his disabilities page give information about the candidate’s policy issues.

I’ll be voting on my own this year using a touch screen with audio output — the Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires “voting systems” to provide independent and private voting for all voters, including citizens who have disabilities. I toyed with voting early, but in the end decided to wait until election day. I’m actually looking forward to standing in line with my fellow Americans.


Scottie Gaither passes on the baton

The Gaither family

We returned on Sunday from an action packed five days in Orlando for the Easter Seals 2008 Convention. This trip was bittersweet for the Gaither family — it marked the time when Scottie passed the baton, so to speak, to the new child representative. Scottie and all of us have had such an amazing and exciting time this past year that it will be a little hard to give up. We have made the most precious friends and have had some truly wonderful experiences.

There are some very specific things I have learned this year as the mother of the Easter Seals 2008 National Child Representative:

  • Scottie does not like to wear long sleeves or dress fancy (as he would say).
  • He has become a very adept traveler and knows exactly what to expect at the security gate in airports.
  • He is a very bright and funny young man that can rise to almost any occasion and never ceases to amaze me or his audience.
  • He is autistic. In case I ever begin to forget, he finds gentle ways to remind me.
  • He has been treated like a celebrity and in his mind has become one as well.
  • He can go most anywhere and sit through most anything if he has his Nintendo DS or his PSP and a good video game.

The people at Easter Seals all over this country and beyond are the most amazing people I have had the honor to know. We have only scratched the surface of our mission as a family: to give back to Easter Seals, as they have given us so much. Easter Seals is changing lives on a daily basis for children like my precious son Scottie. Easter Seals truly does provide HELP, HOPE and ANSWERS!

We would like to thank everyone who is involved with — and who contributes to — Easter Seals for all the love, kindness and support you have shown us this year. As I said at the convention, our official time might be over, but we plan to remain friends of Easter Seals for many, many years to come. Blessings to you all.

Watch a video about Scottie and the Gaither family and see how you can give help and hope to children like him.