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At "Who I Am:" Discovering the Value in disABILITY, members of the community learned more about how people with disabilities view the world and themselves, how to look through stereotypes to the person beyond, and how everyone is worthy of respect. The presentation, organized by local residents and sponsored by the Erie Diocese and the PEAL Center, was held in the gymnasium at St. Marys Catholic Elementary School on Sunday afternoon.
Robert Mecca, executive director of Life and Independence for Today (LIFT), gave the opening remarks at the event. Sister Dolores Dean, OSB, provided the opening prayer. Following two short entertaining and educational films, Jill Hrinda-Patten, the president of an education and advocacy group called Mission Empower, talked about her formal schooling and how at times she was segregated from the regular classroom because she was a person with disabilities. She said by the time she was a junior in high school, these events had cumulatively affected and depressed her, and she was contemplating suicide. It was then, she said, that she prayed for renewed faith in herself and in God. Hrinda-Patten went on to graduate from Edinboro University with a degree in psychology. She and her husband, Kirk, have been married for 20 years and have a son. As an advocate for people with disabilities, she said people need to respect diversity and differences in others, and understand that people with disabilities are just that - people, first and foremost.
"We all have strengths and weaknesses. Disability is just one part of their life," she said.
Hrinda-Patten was joined by a group of friends called the Stereotype Busters, who performed a number of skits for the audience. The skits portrayed a variety of everyday situations and some of the common stereotypes faced by people with disabilities in their interactions with the public. The actors used humor to illustrate how to foster better communication, and to emphasize that people with disabilities can, and do, speak, think and act for themselves. Hrinda-Patten said whether a disability is present at birth or develops later in life, it's important to understand that the person is separate from the disability.
Hrinda-Patten and her friends also talked about the power of words and how they can strengthen and empower or demoralize and weaken. She used the word "handicapped" as an example and explained how it stems from a derogatory meaning. Other derogatory words she pointed out as hurtful included "cripple" and "retard."
Our language has power," Hrinda-Patten said, and urged people to pay attention to the words they use when talking with or about people with a disability.
Hrinda-Patten said she will continue to advocate for people with disabilities to be included in school, work and in the community, and noted that although many good things have happened in recent years, her efforts and those of her group will be needed to promote and protect the rights of people with disabilities for some time to come.
"So many people are still not included," she said. "There's still a lot of work to be done."
Marilyn Keyes, a small business owner and St. Marys resident, was the next speaker. She told the story of her family's decision to go through with the birth of a baby they were told would have significant developmental problems due to a congenital kidney defect. Keyes said when presented with the option of aborting the pregnancy, she thought of the wedding vows she and her husband, John, had spoken agreeing to lovingly accept children in their marriage.
"We didn't say we'd take the perfect ones. We didn't say we'd take the easy ones," Keyes said. The couple decided to continue the pregnancy, and in March 2002, their youngest child, Grace, was born. Although they were cautioned Grace would need a kidney transplant after she was a few years old, Keyes said her daughter has never had to have an invasive procedure performed. Her lesson to the audience was to value all life and to advocate for children with disabilities.
"My daughter was judged based on a disability even before her birth. It's very important for us as parents, as friends, to understand that these children with disabilities have rights and to fight for those rights," she said.
Craig Dietz, a St. Marys native, was the closing speaker and provided the audience with an inspirational talk on how to define and live up to your potential. He discussed his life as a person born without arms or legs and how he has worked to live without limits and set ambitious goals for himself.
"I can't tell you how often people have taken a look at me and vastly underestimated my capabilities as a person," Dietz said.
Dietz, a motivational speaker, ESPN-featured competitive swimmer and licensed attorney, gave an account of his formal education and how he got to be the successful person he is today. He said a strong sense of humor and the ability to laugh at himself are tools he uses daily to deal with life's ups and downs, whether big or small, and described his family as very supportive and "an asset."
"I'm a firm believer that God gives special-needs children to special people," Dietz said.
Dietz said he may have had to approach things differently sometimes because he does not have limbs, but he has always made things work. He told several humorous anecdotes about his life and how he handles and views challenges.
"You have the ability to control your circumstances, rather than allowing your circumstances to control you," Dietz said. "My goal in life has always just been simple; I've never allowed my disability to limit me as a human being."
Following the presentations, Cindy Dollinger, one of the main organizers of the "Who I Am" event, acknowledged Mary Beth Schaut and Georgia Wagner for their assistance in preparing for the day's activities. Jaclyn Johnson, RN, director of the Diocese of Erie's Office of Disability and Deaf Ministries, also acknowledged the speakers, program organizers and all those who assisted with the event in any way.