Feature Story in Fall MAD 2011- Annual Appreciation Ceremony Recognizes Those Who Make a Difference

With an attendance of over 100 guests, the 2011 Making a Difference Annual Appreciation Ceremony, held July 21 at the Melia Hotel Atlanta, honored the many leaders for outstanding advocacy efforts on behalf of Georgia’s disability community throughout the past year. This year’s ceremony hosted by the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) not only expressed gratitude to individuals who have enhanced the opportunities for people with disabilities to have better lives, but also celebrated several milestones.

2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the Developmental Disabilities Bill of Rights and Assistance Act of 1971, the 21st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the 12th anniversary of the 1999 landmark Supreme Court Olmstead Decision. These have all been significant accomplishments that have made a difference and have helped change the way people with disabilities participate in our society.

“Tonight is about congratulations for work already done and encouragement for the work ahead,” said Tom Seegmueller, GCDD chair, as he opened the ceremony. “We mark these milestones to use as stepping stones to move forward and dream new possibilities.”

To honor one of these milestones, GCDD premiered its centerpiece presentation of a public awareness video series, “Voices Beyond the Mirror,” created to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the DD Act. Nancy Vara, a mother of one of the video participants and a guest in the audience said “I felt inspired to see the premiere, and I was so proud to see my son involved in something that educates citizens in our community and gives people a chance to voice their personal experiences.”

The debut of “Voices Beyond the Mirror” was not the only entertainment of the evening. Local Georgia guitarist Joey Stuckey also captured the audience with his wit, personal journey and performance of two songs, Georgia on My Mind and Truth Is A Misty Mountain, a single from his latest 2011 album, The Shadow Sound.

As Eric Jacobson, GCDD executive director, recapped the year’s events, he echoed the same sentiments as Seegmueller. Jacobson added that there have been both achievements and setbacks this year, but “our work is not over. We will be working to move forward with an eye toward success for 2012, and this coming year also promises to be active, challenging and provides great opportunity to make Georgia a welcoming place for all,” he concluded.

This award was established in 2004 to remember Carl Cunningham, who served as the GCDD chairperson in 1999 when he unexpectedly passed away.

“Carl exhibited all the traits of leadership – he advocated for continual learning, radiated positive energy, believed in other people, was proactive and sought to understand others points of view before he spoke,” said Eric Jacobson. It is in his honor that GCDD recognizes one of its own leaders each year who embodies the same spirit and dedication as Carl Cunningham.

This year Randolph “Denny” Spear, an ordained minister for more than 60 years, was named the Council Member of the Year. Spear was honored for his “voice that brings the core values of GCDD front and center … and his unassuming style of leadership that steers conversation toward the heart of our mission – better lives for people with developmental disabilities and their families,” said Kim Chester, presenter and the 2010 recipient of the award.

“It is deeply satisfying to know that the fellow members of the Council that I highly respect think I have contributed more to the Council than I was ever aware,” expressed Spear accepting his prestigious award. As a parent advocate who has an adult daughter with developmental disabilities, Spear has served GCDD on several committees and as interim vice chair, actively participated in the work of the Council and the disability community and is always apt to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.

“As a result of serving on the Council, I am much better informed of the daunting challenges facing the developmental disabilities community … and I am fully convinced that we can only assist them by creative cooperation both in local communities and on a statewide level,” he said. “I am constantly inspired by the people associated with the Council and the quality of their work,” concluded Spear as he received two standing ovations in front of his colleagues, 10 of his family members and his wife of 60 years.

This year the Legislative Leadership Honor went to Rep. Donna Sheldon (R-Dacula), the chair of the House Majority Caucus, for her work and dedication on the multiyear process of the Individual Development Account (IDA) legislation, known as HB 226 in the past session, which was unexpectedly vetoed by Governor Deal.

“I look forward to continuing to work with GCDD and the Governor’s office this year to ensure the passage and the Governor’s signature on IDA accounts,” said Sheldon. “These accounts will provide a tool to assist individuals in improving their quality of life by providing help in purchasing adaptive technology, making modifications to homes and vehicles and removing barriers that stand in their way.”

As Vice Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Sheldon was also recognized by presenter Pat Nobbie, GCDD deputy director, for her contribution in creating legislation for 12 Special Tax Districts for Transportation that gives citizens the opportunity to vote on their transportation needs in their area during some of the most significant transportation legislation in Georgia.

In accepting her award, Rep. Sheldon said, “the Annual Appreciation Ceremony was truly an inspiring night as I heard many in the disability community share their victories and desires to be able to enjoy the opportunities most citizens simply take for granted.”

This year’s Media Excellence Award went to reporter Joseph Shapiro of National Public Radio (NPR) for his investigative news reporting and national coverage in a multi-part series on the Children’s Freedom Initiative.

“Joe is not only a veteran reporter who has consistently gone that extra mile to cover disabilities nationally for many years, he is a friend and so very deserving of tonight’s award,” said presenter Ruby Moore, Georgia Advocacy Office executive director.

As part of his research on the Children’s Freedom Initiative, Shapiro participated in the Family Study Tour, organized in Atlanta, GA and spent two days with families as they learned they could be reunited with their loved ones locked away in institutions in other states.

One individual who he got to know well and was featured in his radio series was Bylon Alexander, a young woman who was forced to move into a nursing facility at the age of 22 when her mother became sick and could no longer provide the support she needed. Alexander dreamed of leaving the facility to participate in the community, live in a home with supports and go back to school. Sadly she passed away days before the awards ceremony at the age of 24 and was unable to make her dreams become a reality. “She too, had a civil right to get care at home, but like many Americans with disabilities, she never enjoyed that right,” reported Shapiro.

“I appreciate the unexpected recognition from the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities for my recent series on NPR… Thanks too, for the recognition of my career on the coverage of disability issues,” he said. Although Shapiro could not attend the awards ceremony, he asked Ruby Moore to express his appreciation and to dedicate his award in memory of Bylon Alexander.

The 2011 Advocacy of the Year award was shared by six students involved in Partnerships for Success (PFS), a high school program that promotes an inclusive environment where all students can participate in activities that allow them to make a contribution to the school and the community. PFS provides students with disabilities the same opportunities to excel in the areas of recreation, social activities, sports and community service as their non-disabled peers.

“The honorees are wonderful examples of PFS principles, and these students have built friendships while serving their communities and earned the respect of their school counselors,” shared Cindy Saylor, the presenter and program manager of PFS. Lyndzi Vaughn and Nick Dyson were recognized from Flowery Branch High School. “They have worked together to not only encourage others to get involved, but also improved the mission of PFS…Thanks to these two students, the club has grown and the excitement and knowledge base had been shared with all families at Flowery Branch High School,” said their school sponsor, Dr. Terresa H. Shubert.  Although Nick Dyson was unable to attend, when asked what it meant to him to have earned this award he answered, “it’s perfect.”

Travis Baker and Katherine Walker from Colquitt County High School were also recognized for the Advocacy of the Year award. Their high school sponsor, Chad Horne, wrote, “they have portrayed the core values of what PFS is about in all aspects of life … and I could not think of any two people more deserving of this award.” Walker, described as caring and full of positive energy, said she became involved in PFS because “it makes me feel good to make other people happy, and I was very proud when I earned this award.”

From Apalachee High School, Sara Cole and Kristin Womack were honored with the advocacy award. Although both students could not be present at the ceremony, Tonya Crowe, their high school sponsor said, “this was Sara’s first year and she enjoyed getting to know the students and learned she had similar interests with them even though some of the students have intellectual disabilities. “She also nominated Kristin Womack for the award because “she is a student with disabilities who advocates for herself and really promotes the club … and she truly loves socializing with everyone.”

In closing the appreciation ceremony, Eric Jacobson reminded the audience that this journey, “the developmental disabilities movement started even more than 40 years ago.” The Kennedy family is credited with setting a path where before there was none. Jacobson concluded with “let’s use this 40th anniversary of the DD Act to reach beyond our personal mirrors to develop something more and maintain the momentum of what started in 1960 – to continue to increase the opportunities and to forever change public attitudes toward people with disabilities.”

SIDEBAR: GCDD Presents “Voices Beyond the Mirror”
“Voices Beyond the Mirror” was created by GCDD to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Developmental Disabilities Bill of Rights and assistance Act of 1971. The series is comprised of 10 different short videos and encourages a deep, thoughtful look into the everyday realities of people living with different types of disabilities. Personal reflections and insight on the progress in the disability rights movement from the Federal Partners of the DD Network is also included.

The goal of “Voices Beyond the Mirror” is to raise awareness, spark conversation, spread knowledge and respond to research that revealed a lack of information and exposure to persons with developmental disabilities and the challenges they face daily. It is offered as a public awareness tool to support advocacy and policymaking efforts throughout Georgia and nationwide.

The following video participants are highlighted on the front cover of the magazine.

The centerpiece video features three main stories:
• Eleanor Smith, a woman in her 70s reflects on life without accessibility
• Charlie Miller, a high school junior gives insight on his school and social life
• Angad Sahgal, a middle school student shares his joys and future dreams

The video series also features the following personal reflections and past experiences:
• Anisio Correia and his wife speak about public perceptions of blindness
• Ken Mitchell envisions driving an accessible car for the visually impaired
• Juan Posada shares the impact of technology for persons with disabilities
• Tameeka Hunter addresses the importance of disability etiquette
• Bernard Baker notes his daughter’s advocacy to ensure places are accessible for him
• Carmine Vara lives independently in the community and addresses his job and aspirations
• Mia Nobbie lives independently in the community and expresses her desire to find work and use her skills
• Dr. Pat Nobbie, Mia’s mom and GCDD deputy director, imparts the value of employment and independent living in the community
• Butch Miller, a Georgia Senator and Charlie’s dad, discusses disability legislation
• Bethany Stevens explains “ableism” and sexual health
• Pete Anziano reflects on his relationship with his 10-year old son, Vincent

“The video series has already garnered great public awareness with 1,850 views on our YouTube site,” said Valerie Suber, GCDD Public Information Director. “By hearing these stories, people can better understand the struggles, triumphs and dreams for the future of people with disabilities and their families.”  Suber, who co-produced “Voices Beyond the Mirror” with David Bernknopf of Splendidvid, said the project is a key component of GCDD’s communications strategy to employ its website and social media to help Georgians become familiar with their neighbors who live with disabilities. “There is also growing interest in the community to have DVD copies of the series and we are delighted to fill those requests,” she said.

For more information or to view the “Voices Beyond the Mirror” video series, please visit http://www.gcdd.org/press-room/video/

The Federal Partners of the DD Network who discuss progress, remaining challenges and associated legislation on the video include:
• Dr. Daniel Crimmins, Center for Leadership in Disability at GSU
• Ruby Moore, The Georgia Advocacy Office
• Randy Grayson, GCDD Council member and Autism Society of Georgia
• Dr. Zolinda Stoneman, Institute for Human Development and Disability, UGA
• Tom Seegmueller, GCDD Chair
• Eric E. Jacobson, GCDD Executive Director

SIDEBAR: Noteworthy Entertainment by Joey Stuckey
Joey Stuckey, known as the official ambassador of music for Macon, GA added a real sweet treat at the ceremony during the dessert hour with his musical performance. “It was truly my privilege to perform at the Appreciation Ceremony,” said Stuckey. “So many inspirational people were there who are passionate about educating the rest of the world about people like myself, who experience the universe differently.”

Stuckey lost his sight and sense of smell as a result of a brain tumor as an infant. However, he refused to dwell on the word “disability” growing up and embraced sound, not only as a way to navigate the world, but also as a way to build a future. Today he is an award-winning guitarist, vocalist, producer, sound engineer, composer, radio and TV personality, motivational speaker and educator of music at Mercer University in Macon among other things.

“My approach to music and recording is very much powered by my brain and understanding the underlying theory that goes in to the art and science of making music,” he says. “I am not distracted by anything visual, and in this way I think being blind is actually an advantage in some ways, though clearly a disadvantage in other ways … either way, it gives me a special touch when performing, teaching or  recording/producing a project.”

With a soulful sound that mixes the rocker style of Jeff Beck, jazzier Wes Montgomery and the southern influences of Gregg Allman, Stuckey gave a great performance and kept the audience entertained and laughing with stories about his personal journey, including meeting his wife of eight years, Jennifer, who he said changed his life in so many ways.

Stuckey has over five albums, has opened and worked with many of music’s legendary artists, won numerous awards and honors and continues to pursue his musical talents. For more information on Joey Stuckey and his successful music career, visit joeystuckey.com.