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Rick McCrabb: People with disabilities want to be treated 'equal,' not 'special'

Hamilton Journal News - 7/31/2022

Jul. 31—At this stage in her life, Connie Mehlman thought she'd be concluding her professional career with the YMCA.

But, as she said of the Y: "It wasn't where my heart was."

After a short time with the YMCA, Mehlman started looking for a different path. Someone told her about an opening for a recreational therapist at the Greene County Developmental Disabilities.

She applied, got the job, and never has left working with people with disabilities. Not disabled people, mind you, and certainly not the "R Word."

After a few years in Greene County, Mehlman transferred to the Butler CountyBoard of Developmental Disabilities and she's completing her 31st year there, now as community outreach coordinator. She never has thought about moving up the executive ranks.

Some people are better teachers than principals.

"I like working with people," she said. "I enjoy the hands-on."

That certainly shows by the numerous pictures on the walls of her tiny office in the Janet Clemmons Center. There are photos from Butler County DD and Best Buddies events at Miami University, where she started a chapter in 2004. Last year at Miami, 85 Best Buddies matches were made of people with disabilities with those without disabilities.

Friendships were formed. Ones that last a lifetime. College graduates have told Mehlman participating in the Best Buddies program was their best social group in Oxford.

"Gives me chills to talk about," Mehlman said, rubbing her left arm. "Just seeing the looks of their faces gives me so much joy and happiness."

She's also involved with Best Buddies Citizens of Butler County. Mehlman, 58, has a buddy named Mandy. They eat lunch together, drink craft beer on the porch and spend the afternoon at the casino.

Mehlman explained it this way: "Just two people looking for friendship and both parties benefit from it."

Time for a commercial break. The group is looking for 12-15 adults who can spend three hours a month with a buddy.

Thirty-two years ago, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law after it was signed by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.

The Butler CountyBoard of DD has launched a sticker campaign that simply reads: "I'm not SPECIAL. I'm EQUAL."

We have labeled people with disabilities "special needs, special this, special that," Mehlman said.

In the end, she said, all they want is "equal opportunity. People don't want to be seen as special."

Progress is being made, she said, thanks for advancements in education and how those with disabilities are portrayed on TV and in the media.

"Little steps here and there," she explained. "Never has to be big steps. Just a little step in the right direction."

Mehlman, married to Ted and the mother of Zack, 37, and Colton, 29, has been in the DD field for 36 years. Retirement gets closer every day. But she sounds as excited today as her first day in Greene County.

"I just love the interaction," she said when asked why she stayed. "People with developmental disabilities do not judge other people. The live life free. They don't have to drink six beers to get out on the dance floor."

Mehlman remembers taking a bus trip to Nashville with a group with developmental disabilities and when the bus pulled into a rest stop, the driver heard clapping. They weren't excited about a restroom break as much as they were about an opportunity to live.

"If it rains at their picnic, they just get under the shelter," Mehlman said "They look at life like we should all look at it. Like it's a gift."


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