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November 3, 2002

Activists want county to help disabled

From: Daytona Beach News-Journal, FL
Nov. 3, 2002

Staff Writer

Editor's note: This occasional series will examine the issues important to voters often overlooked by politicians and will include the responses of local candidates.

DAYTONA BEACH -- Life has been an uphill battle for Sue Peterson and her daughter since Amanda was born with cerebral palsy and severe mental disability 12 years ago.

Each day begins at 4:30 a.m., when Peterson awakens Amanda so she can bathe, dress and feed the child and drive her to her grandparents' home -- all before Peterson begins her job at 9 a.m.

At night, the exhausted mother and daughter fall into bed, only to start the process all over again in the morning.

For Peterson, there is no other choice. "I never wanted to put Amanda in an institution."

A 40-year-old single mother who often depends on her aging parents for the care of her child, Peterson was not able to get a personal care assistant until Amanda had a medical crisis in January.

"My daughter almost had to die before she finally qualified for some public services," said Peterson, a supervisor at the House Next Door, a mental health services agency with programs in DeLand, Deltona and Port Orange. The assistant is available for a few hours each weekend to give Peterson the chance to run a few errands. But the crisis, an infection in her brain, derailed Amanda's progress -- the girl forgot the only three words she had ever spoken and she also lost her ability to chew and swallow.

Peterson needs more help, and would like to see more programs to provide in-home services for parents like herself. And she also would like to see more parks and beaches that are accessible to people who use wheelchairs, including her daughter.

Her co-worker, 34-year-old Estella Bele, can relate.

Bele is the single mother of a 2-year-old son who is hearing-impaired. Justin attends a day-care program sponsored by Easter Seals, but Bele says he could benefit from more extensive services.

She has been working with her son in the evenings to help him develop verbal skills, but is sometimes so tired their sessions last only 15 minutes. She can't afford to pay almost $40 an hour for a private speech therapist.

Bele said she was told her son didn't qualify for certain services because he has "too few disabilities."

"Justin fell through the cracks," Bele said. "One place where I wanted to put him for better programs asked me if he had other disabilities. Since he has only one, he doesn't fit their criteria."

The women's stories don't surprise Doug Hall, an activist for the blind. Hall says most politicians are clueless about the needs of people with disabilities.

"So far, the people who are running on the current slate for the (Volusia) County Council, with the exception of one or two, have not mentioned anything about people with disabilities," Hall said. "That's disappointing."

But Hall, who is president of the advisory committee for the Independent Living Resource Center of Volusia/Flagler counties, said he's willing to educate the candidates about the issues that affect voters who have to contend with disabilities ranging from blindness to illiteracy.

Hall, who attends countless civic meetings with his German shepherd guide dog, Keaton, praised the current County Council for expanding the county's bus service into the evenings so people with disabilities can work, do errands and attend social functions.

He also gave the council high marks for recently agreeing to purchase more than 100 touch-screen computers with talking ballots that will aid blind, elderly and illiterate voters.

But Hall also hopes the county will create an advisory board to deal specifically with the issues that affect people with disabilities, such as developing programs to provide more jobs.

"Employment opportunities are very rocky for people with disabilities in Volusia County," said advocate Irene Moses. "We need better job opportunities."

Scott Larson, who is blind, agrees. The 24-year-old has a job at Metro Electronics, but said many of his friends who have disabilities have lost employment in the past because the jobs were seasonal.

"We need more companies in the area that are willing to provide yearlong employment," Larson said.

"People with disabilities need to work."

© 2002 News-Journal Corporation, (SM)