Annie O’Neill and a fellow athlete enjoy stand-up paddle boarding on calm water.
At the age of five, Annie O’Neill of East Thetford was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a developmental disorder that may affect one’s behavior, ability to communicate and ability to socialize. The symptoms can vary from person to person, but for Annie, it became known by a loss of ability to verbally communicate.
Annie was born to Dana and David O’Neill in 1981 in Harford, Conn. and the family moved to the Boston area shortly after Annie’s diagnosis to enroll her at Boston Higashi School. “We suspected something was different with Annie, even at her first birthday, but this kind of thing was never spoken of openly and no one was aware or knew how to diagnose it,” said Dana O’Neill. “So we took her to Higashi School where she was able to participate in special programs every day. The program was really important to her.” After Annie graduated in 2003, the family moved up to Vermont to start an art reproduction and printing business called Northlight Editions, based in White River Junction.
Since moving to Vermont, Annie has been able to participate in adaptive sports programs and teach herself new sports all the time. Her favorite summer activities are playing golf with her dad, practicing yoga and stand-up paddling. She practices yoga and golf with Zack’s Place in Woodstock and is training for the Special Olympics on the Zack’s Place golf team. She has also been involved with Global Campus Shiremont in New Hampshire and taught a golf class with her father, David, last year. Annie also loves rollerskating, unicycling, hula-hooping, working out at the gym, and horseback riding with Vermont Adaptive.
Today Annie is 34 years old and has worked for more than 10 years at Landmark College in Putney as a prep cook. She is able to do the things she loves every day thanks to the programming opportunities from organizations all over New England like Vermont Adaptive. “Annie loves being outside and understands the sports very well. She loves trying brand new things and it may take her a while to learn, but she won’t give up if she really likes it,” said O’Neill. “It may become difficult at times for Annie to communicate with people, but her ASD will never stop her from doing the things she loves.”
Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports serves a client base with a wide range of disabilities. One of the organization’s main goals is to encourage diversity, disability equality and inclusive recreation for people of all abilities.
Vermont Adaptive offers a disability awareness program that is presented to elementary and high school audiences, as well as at conferences, workshops and events. Some of the main focuses of the program are to teach people how to interact with various individuals who have different disabilities and the kind of terminology that is appropriate to use. When interacting with a person who has a disability, the language one can use can help promote positive attitudes if done in the correct way. Here are just a few examples of the do’s and don’ts:
Use first person terminology. Put the person before the disability, as in: “Person with disability,” or “Person who has a disability.” The person is more important than the disability.
Address a person who is deaf directly when you are talking to him or her. Ask what communication strategy is preferred. Don’t address the interpreter. Speak clearly and at a moderate pace, facing the person directly. Don’t speak with your back turned, shout, or exaggerate your lip movements.
Introduce yourself when you are speaking to people who are blind. It may take them a while before they can distinguish your voice, so re-identify yourself. Do ask the person if he or she needs your assistance, such as opening a door. Ask how he or she would like to be guided and guide the person only after he or she has accepted the offer.
Sit down when talking to a person who uses a wheelchair so you are at the person’s eye level.
Don’t use terms like “wheelchair-bound.” Wheelchairs provide access and should be viewed the same as any other assistive device.
Don’t use labeling terminology or negative phrases such as “disabled person,” “The Handicapped, The Disabled,” “suffers from…” or refer to someone who does not have a disability as a “normal person.”
Organizations, schools, teachers and groups who are interested in learning more and promoting disability awareness should contact Vermont Adaptive at (802) 786-4991.
By Anne Koch