“Inclusive” is just one word, but it encompasses the entire theme of State Representative Dan Miller’s Third Annual Children & Youth Disability & Mental Health Summit, held today and tomorrow at Beth El Congregation.
“Our state would be better off if there was more of a move to find ways to include people with disabilities,” says Miller. “We should be making an effort to help in any way we can—morally, financially—and one of the the goals of this summit is to keep people with disabilities from graduating to the couch.”
The summit began at 9 a.m. today with a keynote speech by Torrie Dunlap, CEO of Kids Included Together.
People from all over Western Pennsylvania made up the audience of more than 200. In addition to adults and children with disabilities, the audience also included relatives of children with disabilities, caregivers, self-advocacy groups and professionals earning continuing education credits.
Following the keynote speech, attendees were invited to peruse the Support Services Resource Fair, which featured 110 organizations that provide support to children with disabilities and their families. “We actually have 60 more organizations here than last year,” says Miller. “Often, when children are diagnosed with a disability, families have to drive up to two hours away to find help for them. The purpose of this particular fair is to help those families who are often living on a thin thread and are in need of support.”
Lisa Gordon from the North Hills is one such attendee. She is the parent of a 16-year-old daughter who was diagnosed with autism when she was 3. “I already have a full-time job, but caring for her has become a full-time job too,” says Gordon. She formed a North Hills support group for families of children with autism, called Just Us Parents, and her goal in attending the summit was to collect resources, not just for herself, but for the members of her group.
Professionals, such as Carol Roossin and Kristen Salamone of Beaver Valley Intermediate Unit, also attended the resource fair. “This is a really cutting-edge event for autism and mental health,” says Roossin, who came to make connections with the organizations so she can pass the information on to the school districts she serves.
Tomorrow, the focus of the fair will change to feature 65 organizations that provide employment opportunities and transition services to people with disabilities. Eighty-five students from 12 different high schools will attend tomorrow’s Employment & Transition Resources fair after participating in a morning session designed to teach them how to become disability advocates. Following the fair, they will have the opportunity to interact with local senators and representatives for the panel discussion session at 12:30 p.m.
Sessions on various topics will be conducted throughout the course of the summit. Many smaller sessions are booked, but there is still space available for walk-ins.
Last year, the event had 65 attendees preregistered for sessions, and this year, preregistration has expanded to 510. “This is my biggest event, and my favorite event,” says Miller. “We have more people helping, and we simply couldn’t do it without the support of Beth El Congregation and St. Clair Hospital, which underwrites the majority of the cost.”
One of the largest events of its kind in Western Pennsylvania, the summit represents a unique opportunity for residents of Mt. Lebanon and beyond to learn about the issue of inclusion for people with disabilities. In her keynote speech, Dunlap gave examples of organizations that “bake inclusion into their business models” before sending her audience home with a task: “I would like everyone here today to think about this: Take what we’re learning here today and spread it, and share it with others.”