Name: Casey Shepard
Title: Miss Apple Blossom Festival
Embracing Not Defining Disabilities
In our society there can be preconceptions toward people with disabilities — a discomfort, a subtle fear of that which is different and unfamiliar. It can manifest as pity, disrespect, exclusion or ridicule. Children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than non-disabled students. Across the state Special Olympics is reaching more than 21,000 athletes and nearly as many volunteers. It is a movement that changes lives.
My platform, Embracing Not Defining Disabilities, was inspired through my participation with Special Olympics. I have volunteered for over a decade. Three years into my volunteering with the organization, I met an eight year old girl named Skye. She suffered from extreme autism and was very limited in her ability to communicate with others. After witnessing her brave and positive attitude, I was motivated to make it my mission to be her voice and a catalyst for change in the areas of communication and advocacy. It is my goal to promote the positive contributions people with intellectual disabilities can make to communities around Virginia.
I have and will continue to create awareness by locally organizing the Spread the Word to End the Word (“R”-word) media campaign which acknowledges the improper use of the word: retard. The event is every March and is held in schools, local malls and my dance studio. It has now extended to social media where advocacy helps to eliminate false perceptions and increased compassion of the disabled community. Most recently with the help of the Chesapeake School Board and Virginia High School athletic director, I helped to implement UNIFIED sports in the area public schools. Special Olympics Unified Sports is a fast growing initiative that brings people with and without intellectual disabilities together on the same team to compete. Through support of the Special Olympics VA high school leagues are working together to build communities of acceptance and inclusion through the engagement of young people in Virginia schools. I am a Board member of the Miss Abilities Chesapeake Pageant and this year launched a pageant in Hanover, VA. It was created by the Chesapeake Parks and Recreation for teens with disabilities. The pageant helps to empower young disabled women, expand their potential, and celebrate their abilities. This year I was awarded a Walt Disney World Summer of Service Grant of $500 to help fund the expansion of Miss Abilities. Criteria was to submit ideas/projects that could make communities stronger and implement and assist the creative visions within the sponsoring organization. In 2016 I was awarded Volunteer of the Year with the Chesapeake Special Olympics.
I will utilize my title to work toward becoming a national spokesperson with Special Olympics. Through school programs attitudes and behaviors are changed by continuing to encourage students to pledge to end the “R”-word and advocate for the use of language that respects the dignity of people with mental disabilities. This lesson would be coupled with one on bulling and how it affects everyone and leads toward how hurtful speech makes all people feel “less than human”. My marketing strategy is to participate in community-based and school-based programs linked with special initiatives and year-round regional and state level competitions. I want to encourage corporate supporters with evidence that their support makes a difference in a time where “corporate social responsibility” has become an increasingly visible corporate metric. Social media campaigns can empower thousands of volunteers and sponsors while enhancing corporate image and positively impacting morale. It is a tool to market and convey that we are not defined by the obstacles in our lives, but we become stronger individuals in spite of them. By helping to raise awareness and funds for the movement everyone benefits.
At first, I thought I was the one making an impact, never realizing how greatly my life was being changed. My platform impacts all of us by demonstrating respect for others and this helps you gain a newfound respect for yourself. I am hoping to create communities that will work together to empower the disabled to be enabled. This simple call to action symbolizes positive attitude change and a commitment to make the world a more accepting place for all people.