I n recent decades, organizations that help people who are ‘different’—living with physical or other kinds of limitations—have cropped up to advocate on their behalf. What has resulted is a landscape that works to provide ‘normal’ opportunities to people who in the past didn’t have them.
Perhaps you’ve cleaned out your closet and made a trip to a Goodwill store, but did you know that those too-snug sweaters could help someone become a chef? “Many people are familiar with the retail side of Goodwill,” says executive VP Mark Arens. “But the stores are just one face of our organization. Our diverse employment and educational programs span a variety of industries, including information technology, construction and culinary arts.”
In 2001, Metropolitan Employment and Rehabil itation Services and Missouri Goodwill Industries merged to form MERS/Missouri Goodwill Industries, serving more than 13,000 clients in 53 counties throughout the state. “The primary focus of our programs is preparing people for the world of work,” explains Arens. “For the disabled, for women struggling to escape an abusive environment, for ex-offenders, employment is the great equalizer. It all begins with education, and our training programs provide individualized instruction with certificates of completion. While they are in training, students can utilize support groups and case management services.” As part of their curriculum, MERS Goodwill offers a job readiness program where clients learn to create resumes, conduct a job search and prepare for interviews.
Students with disabilities have a strong advocate with the Special Education Foundation, a private nonprofit that helps ‘special’ students find success beyond the classroom. “The Foundation provides support and assistance beyond what tax dollars can do,” says executive director Diane Buhr. Educating a child with a disability is very expensive, explains Buhr, and it would be impossible for one organization to provide for all their needs.
“The Foundation provides assistive devices such as hearing aids, wheelchairs and hand controls for cars,” Buhr says. “Many deaf children do not have access to hearing aids because they are expensive and insurance rarely covers the cost. We want every child to have whatever they need to succeed.” The Foundation encourages personal growth with college scholarships and several leadership initiatives, including the Fred Saigh Leadership Program, designed to develop leadership skills by having students interact with community leaders, according to Buhr. “The year-long curriculum gives the kids tremendous opportunities to get involved,” she says. “On a recent visit to Jefferson City, they had lunch with the lieutenant governor and were recognized on the floor of the House. They spent half a day at St. Patrick Center and then attended an editorial meeting at the Post-Dispatch. At graduation they give a presentation about their experiences. The confidence they gain is just remarkable.”
Therapeutic Horsemanship (TH) has provided award-winning equestrian therapy programs for people with disabilities since 1975. When a 5-year-old client receiving speech therapy on horseback suddenly commanded his horse to “Move on!,” his therapy team cheered and his mom cried, because it was the very first time the child had ever spoken. “It was an amazing moment for everyone,” says executive director Dennis Costello, “And it would be hard to say who was more excited.” TH is ranked as one of the top therapeutic riding programs in the country and accredited by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA). “Horseback riding fosters self-confidence while providing therapeutic benefits,” Costello explains. “Our riders don’t even realize it’s therapy, because they are having such a great time.” TH recently partnered with the Veterans Administration to create “TH Horses for Heroes” for America’s wounded service personnel and veterans, added Costello, the first program of its kind offered in the St. Louis area.
Whether it’s reading an email message or crossing the street, people with visual disabilities face daunting challenges, but adaptive technology is making their lives easier, safer and more fun, according to Lowell Newsom, director of development for Missouri Council of the Blind. “There are hundreds of products designed for the blind, from high-powered magnifiers to specially designed software,” he explains. One of the most popular programs, ‘Jaws,’ converts text into spoken language. While these technologies help the blind with everyday tasks, clever engineering also allows them to play on a competitive softball team, says Newsom. Beep baseball (‘beepball’) utilizes softballs that emit a steady beep, and when the batter hits the ball, a buzz from an electronic base provides direction. St. Louis will host a beepball tournament in September at the Florissant Area Athletic Association fields. “If you have any preconceived notions about what a blind athlete can do, you’re going to be very surprised at the skill level of sightless players in a competitive beepball game,” Newsom promises.