The lobby at a Hyatt Regency in Orlando was crowded on a recent Saturday, filled with people with disabilities such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other limitations.
But this event was not about pointing out the disabilities, but rather to discuss how it unites them in a reunion-like setting.
The Family Café, an annual conference that gathers people with disabilities from all over Florida, attracted more than 6,000 people.
Several huge conference rooms and halls were reserved to host classes, exhibition space and even a dance floor. The mission behind the event, which began in 1998: to unite families raising children with different types of disabilities and help create a society.
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Everyone who attends is linked to people with special needs, including Family Café founder Lori Fahey, whose daughter has cerebral palsy. She grew up in the pre-internet era and it was difficult for Fahey to find helpful information to make her child’s life better.
“What we are trying to do is create a world of people with all types of disabilities and of all ages,” said Jeremy Countryman, the convention’s program director. “We have people with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, autism, Down syndrome. We also have people representing the brain injury community and the physical disability community.”
The convention provides sessions on issues like civil engagement because people with disabilities often don’t think of themselves as a coalition or a voting block, organizers said. Speakers try to encourage convention attendees to become engaged in local government.
Keynote addresses focused on mental health, bipolar diseases and mental health challenges. The recurring message: It’s ok to discuss disabilities openly, to share concerns and experiences.
Other sessions focused on disaster preparedness, financial planning and employment, advocacy and public policy. Another looked at the additional challenges faced by military families with disabled children due to frequent relocation and transitions into new schools.
Among those who attended was Paula Keyser, her husband Mark and their son Jeremy, a 15-year-old with hydrocephalus, cerebral palsy and epilepsy.
“When he was born the doctors didn’t think that he would make it through the night,” Keyser said of her son. “He had three brain surgeries by the time he was 6 months old. He didn’t walk until he was 27 months and didn’t talk until he was 4 1/2.”
Today, Jeremy is completing the 10th grade, moves around in a wheel chair and wears headphones because of hypersensitivity to sounds. He chooses his words carefully when he speaks. And at the convention, he helped his mother with her presentation, “Jeremy’s Journey.”
“He has some challenges and struggles with his day-to-day stuff but on the whole he is doing amazing,” Keyser said.
Jeremy is a fan of the Family Café mascot, a fictional chef named Guido. When he heard that a man in the Guido-costume was somewhere nearby at the convention, he rushed to take a picture with him.
“I like masks, I usually put on the costume while going to the hospital to entertain the kids,” Jeremy said. “Every day, I face some life challenges.”
Natalie Eno, the mother of three daughters, has been attending the convention for eight years. Her oldest daughter has autism.
“I’m trying to learn how is to navigate the system,” said Eno, a family resource specialist. “Every year, I learn something new.”
Thea Chimenty, who has a daughter and a son with varying degrees of cerebral palsy, attended the convention with her family for help on planning her children’s future.
“It’s not getting worse but they are going to get older,” Chimenty said. “We are here to plan financial aspects of the future, find different options for them. Every diagnosis is different. Sometimes it’s hard, and you to do a lot of work to do to find the resources that teach new skills.”
Once the sessions ended, attendees gathered for a night of dance to tunes by the likes of Justin Timberlake, Queen and the Village People’s popular “YMCA” song. The gathering was so joyous, many were brought to tears.
Then came the closing, featuring motivational speaker Jennifer Adams, who was born with partial limbs. She told the crowd that every day she proves to the world that the word "disabled" is not about her at all.
The university graduate with a bachelor’s in psychology from Pacific University and a master’s in counseling from Faith Seminary spends much of her time visiting schools and daycare centers to show kids that having a disability doesn’t have to be a limitation and that people with disabilities are no different from any other people.
In 2014, Adams honored with the title of “Ms. Wheelchair America.” She likes to skateboard and dance. In 2015, she moved to Miami and started a nonprofit organization, Making the Dreams Come True, Inc. which provides adaptive sports and adventures for the disabled.
Their mission: “To provide dream opportunities for people with extra-abilities globally.”
Among those listening to her inspirational words was a woman with a son who has Williams syndrome and looks like a teenager. But he is 35 years old.
"Kyle lives separately, but very close to us,” said the mother. “We're just trying to make the life more comfortable for him.”
Before attendees headed back to their daily lives, they were invited to come onto the stage. One by one, they took the microphone and to uttered the words that have become the Family Café’s mantra:
“I have value as an individual and I have something to contribute to society though I have disabilities. Maybe I have something more to contribute because I understand the things that are more difficult or more complicated than they are for average person,” speakers said.
“It's getting better all the time.”
Russian journalist Olga Yakovleva was in Miami as part of an exchange program sponsored by the Washington-based Center for International Journalists.