Former Swimmer Encourages Kids to Relate to Disabled Peers

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Washington Post - A dozen small children sat in a semi-circle on the floor of the Lovettsville Library on a rainy afternoon last week, their eyes riveted on author Cara Coleman and her 6-year-old daughter, Justice.

"'I have a disability. It does not make me a scary monster,'" Coleman read. She paused to ask the group, "What does 'disability' mean?"

A little girl in a red shirt answered eagerly: "Not able to do something!"

Coleman lifted the book in her hands so the group could see, and pointed to a word on the page: 'DisAbility,' with the 'a' capitalized.

"I did that because I want you to focus on the word 'ability,'" Coleman said. "Because Justice can do a lot of things."

Coleman and Justice have presented Coleman's book, "I Am Justice, Hear Me Roar!" at schools and libraries across Loudoun County and other parts of Northern Virginia over the past several months. They have the routine down: Coleman reads the book and encourages the young audience members to ask questions. Justice sits beside Coleman in her wheelchair. Sometimes she murmurs or squeals when her mother reads a favorite part of the story.

Justice was born with multiple disabilities, one of which is agenesis of the corpus callosum - meaning the structure that connects the two hemispheres of her brain is missing. She does not walk or talk, and she uses a feeding tube.

But despite her limitations, "she is an absolute joy," Coleman said. "She is just about one of the happiest kids ever. That's one of the things I try to teach the kids. Yes, she's not saying words like we are, but she can very clearly communicate."

When Coleman read a passage about how Justice sometimes doesn't like taking a bath or going to bed, Justice twisted her body toward her mother and let out a sing-song cry.

"See, she's complaining," Coleman said, and the kids giggled.

The pair appeared at Lovettsville Library as part of a reading series to celebrate October's disability awareness month. But Coleman said she hopes the book raises "kid awareness" rather than disability awareness.

"I don't want kids or adults to be afraid of Justice and her different abilities," Coleman explained. "They are a part of her, but there are much bigger and better parts of her that make her a kid just like any other kid."

Justice goes to school at Kenneth W. Culbert Elementary in Hamilton, where she is part of an inclusive educational program where disabled students are not separated from other students. She goes to hippotherapy - therapeutic horseback riding - once a week, where she rides her favorite horse, Andy. She goes to church and her siblings' sports practices with her parents near their home in Waterford. She laughs with her brothers and little sister.

Coleman, a former immigration attorney, wrote the book as a project for a Partners in Policymaking program with the Virginia Board for People With Disabilities. Coleman said that before she focuses her attention on policy and legal advocacy, she wants to build a community for Justice in Loudoun County, "one kid at a time."

That means explaining to children whose eyes widen when they first see Justice that there's no reason to be uncomfortable or afraid.

"I often tell them that right at the start, before we start reading," Coleman said. "I tell them don't worry, this is who she is; it's okay."

Coleman also answers lots of questions: How does Justice get on the bus? Can she ride on an airplane? How does she eat? What's the best way to be her friend?

Coleman describes the lift that boosts Justice's wheelchair onto the bus, and explains how Justice has a feeding tube in her stomach but still likes to taste foods - her favorites are spaghetti sauce and strawberries. Coleman tells the kids that even though Justice can't have a conversation like other friends can, she can show that she's happy to see them by opening her eyes wide or raising her eyebrows, or moving her head to see them better.

After the reading, Lori Schue, who illustrated "I Am Justice, Hear Me Roar!" led the children in a special art project. They decorated tracing-paper leaves with brightly colored tissue paper cutouts that glowed when held toward the ceiling lights. Justice loves bright lights and colors, Schue told the group.

Coleman and Justice plan to continue visiting classrooms as well as Brownie and Daisy Girl Scout troops in the coming months. Coleman said she hopes to reach as many children as possible, to help them develop a better understanding of Justice and other children with disabilities.

"I know that we're accomplishing things for Justice if kids say hi to her when they see her," she said. "We've had a lot of kids who have been to readings, and they'll see her at church or they'll see her at a game, and they'll come and say hi to her. That response has been great."

As the craft session came to a close, a girl with long dark hair approached Justice to show her a decorated leaf, holding it up near Justice's face.

"How pretty!" Coleman said, pointing.

Justice turned her head to look. The corner of her lip curved upward. Both little girls smiled.

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