March is recognized as Developmental Disabilities and Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month. In 1987, President Ronal Reagan urged Americans to provide individuals with developmental disabilities “the encouragement and opportunities they need to lead productive lives and to achieve their true potential” and Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month began. More recently in 2005, cerebral palsy was given its own month of acknowledgement because of initiatives from senators Johnny Isakson (R - Georgia) and Robert Casey Jr. (D - Pennsylvania), among others. The ultimate goal for both of these efforts is to raise awareness and promote inclusion of individuals with these disabilities.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in six children ages 3-17 have one or more developmental disability. Developmental disabilities can include: ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, hearing loss, intellectual disability, learning disability, vision impairment, and other developmental delays. These disabilities occur during a child’s development period and impair mobility, learning, speech, and/or behavior.
The kick-off to Developmental Disabilities Month is Inclusion Day on March 2. On this day and throughout the month, it is encouraged to wear orange in support of developmental disabilities and inclusion.
Cerebral palsy is a condition that affects body movement, muscle tone, coordination, and control, reflexes, posture, and balance. It is caused by brain damage before, during, or immediately after birth. CerebralPalsy.org states about two to three children out of every 1,000 have cerebral palsy and there is currently no cure.
In March, green isn’t only for St. Patrick’s Day. Green is the color for cerebral palsy awareness and you can show your support by wearing green on March 25 for National Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day.
W.A.G.S. 4 Kids trains and places mobility service and autism service dogs exclusively with children. Ninety percent of our placement families have family members that have been diagnosed with some form of developmental disability, while 10% receive their diagnosis after experiencing an accident or traumatic events. On behalf of all of our partner placement families, we are proud to be invited to speak in the school systems and around the region, constantly educating and raising awareness; on behalf of service animals as an adaptive technology and how that differs from other “working animals;” on behalf of our trainers; and on behalf of inclusion which starts with being able to recognize each other by our similarities before distinguishing us by our differences. We are promoting “Inclusion Always, In All Ways.”
As always, this March we highlight the abilities of our kids who can! Bringing you a small collection from the countless chronicles of children and their service dogs from the W.A.G.S. 4 Kids family tree. Check it out:
Myles - Cerebral palsy
Myles was one of the first children that received a W.A.G.S. 4 Kids service dog in 2004.
Along with having cerebral palsy, Myles was non-verbal and communicated with simple sign language.
“Myles … couldn’t speak very well at all,” Dad Vince recalled of his son.
W.A.G.S. 4 kids trained Myles’ service dog AJ with sign language commands that Myles could use to communicate with the dog since he was non-verbal.
“They trained AJ all in sign language,” Vince said. There were “Over 20 or 30 different signs that AJ knew that Myles could communicate with him.”
Because of his connection with service dog AJ, Myles started to overcome barriers when it came to life with cerebral palsy. Over time, Myles began to speak and verbally communicate with AJ and his family. Long awaited, Myles’ first word was “come” so he could call his dog to him.
Myles’ mom Suzi noticed right away how AJ was helping when it came to the inclusion of her son.
“My favorite thing about bringing AJ places is that instead of people, mostly kids, saying ‘Look at that kid in the walker, what’s wrong with him’ it’s ‘Wow mom, look at that kid with the dog, it’s really cool,’” she said.
Having AJ helped Myles’ peers see past his disability and include him in activities.
Tyler - Autism
Tyler was diagnosed with autism around age four. He would often become frustrated because of his lack of verbal communication. Going into public situations caused him to become overly excited, overwhelmed, or frightened and he would try to run away.
Tyler’s parents hoped a service dog would help Tyler by encouraging him to form a special and unique bond with the dog. Ideally, learning to form relationships is something that would be carried over into social settings with family, peers, and other adults.
After service dog, Tito was introduced to Tyler, the two started to form a bond as Brad and Michelle had hoped.
“He (Tito) definitely wants to be there (for Tyler),” Michelle said. “He hears the first cry or start of a tantrum from Tyler and he’s right there.”
Through time, the biggest positive improvement came when the family started to venture out into public with Tito.
“Tyler just wants to be where his dog is,” Michelle said. “He hasn’t wandered, he hasn’t run off in a crowded spot because he has that purpose of holding on to (Tito) or walking with him.”
Michelle explained that sometimes children with developmental disabilities like autism can’t go out in public, be around people, or know their purpose. She said sometimes it seems like her son Tyler doesn’t know his own purpose, but Tito has helped Tyler work through that.
“We gave him a dog that he has to take care of, that he helps us brush, that he feeds,” she said. “It gives him that sense of ownership and purpose and responsibility. Some of these kids wouldn’t be able to do these things if they didn’t have their dog with them.”
TuYen - Cerebral palsy
TuYen is a high school student going to class, doing homework, and taking finals. TuYen’s service dog, Noah, does all of those things by her side to support her needs that stem from cerebral palsy.
Noah helps TuYen with her balance. Cerebral palsy causes her walk to be shaky and unsteady, but Noah’s bracing assistance provides relief.
“I tend to walk with a more side-to-side gait,” TuYen explained. “He’s always there for support in case I get tired, or just need someone or something to lean on.”
Along with his mobility support, Noah is a friend helping TuYen become more independent as teenagers aim to be.
“It’s really nice to be able to go out with my friends and not have my parents worry,” she said. “My response is always ‘I have Noah.’”
Noah goes everywhere with TuYen – they’ve been on airplanes together as well as on trips to the local grocery store or mall. Noah has not only helped her physically, but also to find inclusion among other teenagers.
TuYen plans to attend college out-of-state, and Noah will be alongside her through that rite of passage.
A disability is what someone has, it does not define who they are. It’s for children like Myles, Tyler, and Tuyen – along with all other kids in our W.A.G.S. 4 Kids family tree – that we raise awareness for cerebral palsy and developmental disabilities.
Whether you choose to wear orange or green this month, help us recognize all individuals with developmental disabilities and cerebral palsy.