Joel Baptist, a 13-year-old Elmore Stoutt High School student, may need a little help moving from one place to another sometimes, but besides that he is just like any other teenager.

The wheelchair-user, who was born with cerebral palsy, has a regular class schedule, eats regular food, plays computer games and has a Facebook account. When he graduates, he wants to be a computer technician.

Mr. Baptist was one of more than 100 people who took part in the territory’s first Buddy Walk on Saturday. Organised by the Social Development Department, the event was designed to spread awareness about community members with special needs.

Participants proceeded from the Peebles Hospital parking lot to the Noel Lloyd Positive Action Movement Park. Some of them held placards with messages: “See the Person, Not the Disability;” “Inclusion is A Must;” “Disability Does Not Mean Inability.”

At the park, a short ceremony was held, during which Special Olympics BVI launched its second Mile of Quarters fundraiser. The group hopes to raise at least $16,000 to support the athletes who plan to represent the territory this year at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece, according to Ross Monroe, president of the SOBVI board of directors.

Mr. Monroe encouraged the community to donate quarters in aid of the trip. “Dig deep, look into those bowls that you throw your quarters in,” Mr. Monroe said, adding that cheques and dollar bills are also accepted.

Int’l observance

The Buddy Walk is observed once a year internationally, Lorna Dawson, education officer for special needs, said during the ceremony.

The event was initially designed for people with cerebral palsy, but in the VI, everyone with specials needs was included, Ms. Dawson said.

The education officer also urged community members to be more sensitive to the needs of disabled residents. “They are unable to do things that other human beings can do, but they are just like other human beings,” she said.

Parking spaces designated for disabled residents should be respected, and buildings should incorporate facilities that are easily accessible, Ms. Dawson said.

A ‘regular kid’

After the ceremony, 6-year-old Zharea Freeman was hanging out by a face-painting booth with a few other children. Her plaited hair was decorated with colourful beads.

Zharea, who has a hearing problem and a speech impediment, loves to paint and is a “regular kid,” according to her mother, Michelle Freeman.

“It is a struggle dealing with her emotionally,” Ms. Freeman said. However, with regular therapy and treatment, “her progress is good,” she added.

With little help from the government, Zharea’s medical treatment is also a financial challenge, according to Ms. Freeman. The family spends more than $30,000 annually on medications, hearing aids, and trips to doctors, the mother said.

“The government has done nothing to help. … Everything I’ve done, I’ve done it on my own. They are always saying they are working on it,” she said.

Often, residents don’t understand people with disabilities, she added. “The community is not very aware of the different disabilities in the community. … The response is not very welcoming,” she said.

Zharea’s doctors have said the girl may not be able to hear for the rest of her life, according to her mother. However, this doesn’t make her an unhappy child, Ms. Freeman explained.

“She is just full of life and zest and very passionate about everything she does,” the mother said. “I am not sure she is aware that she has that disability.”

Pearlette Fraser-Smith, the principal of Joyce Samuel Primary School, was the guest speaker at the ceremony. Ms. Fraser-Smith was disabled after she had an accident last year. After a medical procedure, however, she is now able to walk again.

A disability could be physical, emotional, cognitive, mental, sensory or a combination of all of these, according to Ms. Fraser-Smith. “It may be from birth or could occur in life due to an illness or accident,” she said.

Living with a disability can be a major challenge, she added.

“Many people with disabilities demonstrate courage every day,” she said, advising, “Don’t be afraid to ask for support. … Having a disability doesn’t mean you cannot have fun.”

There should be equal rights and opportunities for people with special needs in the territory, according to the speaker. “Their rights should not be abused,” Ms. Fraser-Smith said.