By JAY HOWSER
Increasing public awareness of issues facing Down syndrome children is the goal of a Utah Down Syndrome Foundation conference Friday and Saturday in the Wilkinson Center.
The conference will feature classes and workshops which deal with a wide variety of topics, said Tericia Fitzgerald, UDSF President.
These classes will be directed at Down syndrome youth, their parents, their siblings and the general public, Fitzgerald said.
“Basically this conference is an education for everybody who comes,” she said. “I hope people will walk away with a new vision of the future.”
UDSF also hopes that the conference will be attended by politicians and local professionals in an effort to find new ways to integrate Down syndrome individuals into the work force, Fitzgerald said.
“We’ve focused so much on disability in the past, but we need to focus on ability,” said Roz Welch, UDSF Secretary.
“We need to find ways to use the abilities that they have and help them to achieve their potential in today’s society,” she said.
Fitzgerald said that another major focus of the conference is to encourage Down syndrome individuals to develop a voice.
“Our children need to learn how to advocate for themselves,” she said. “They need to learn to address public officials and professionals more than they do now.”
The BYU Family Science department is sponsoring the event. This is the first year the UDSF has held the conference in Utah County; it had been held at Weber State University for nine years.
The activities for Down syndrome children who attend Saturday include exercise, bowling, water coloring, songs and drama with a video presentation at the end of the day. There will also be a class on social appropriateness, Welch said.
Twelve speakers will address parents who attend. During these sessions various educational, medical, social and legal issues will be discussed, Fitzgerald said.
One of the classes for parents will deal with education plans for children who are of preschool age or older. Another will discuss planning for the future for children at least 14 years old.
There is even a class which gives information to parents with newborns diagnosed with Down syndrome. This subject is a major emphasis of the UDSF, Welch said.
“Parents don’t know what to be prepared for; we try to tell them it’ll be OK,” Welch said.
“The kids used to die early, but with medical technology they’re living longer now,” she said.
“My favorite part about the conference is that families who have fears, hopes and dreams for their children meet other families with the same fears, hopes and dreams,” said Terrance Olson, of the BYU School of Family Life.
Olson will be a keynote speaker for the conference. His remarks, entitled “Human and Humane,” will address how Down syndrome children are treated by society.
“If you’re a human being, you have more in common with other human beings than you have differences,” he said. “People tend to treat the children in terms of that difference instead of their humanity.”
Tim McConnell from the State Board of Education will conduct two workshops for parents on Friday.
One workshop will discuss the new laws to provide adequate education to children with special needs, and the other will deal with Individualized Education Plans for Down syndrome children.
A legislative coalition will speak to parents on how to be advocates for Down syndrome children and how to make them advocates for themselves.
Fitzgerald said that one of the new additions to this year’s conference is the focus on the siblings of Down syndrome people.
“Brothers and sisters sometimes are the ones who take responsibility for them, and they also see a lot of unkindness from others that Down syndrome people don’t catch,” she said. “Sometimes the siblings get the hard end of the stick.”
The focus of the workshops for siblings is to open their eyes to others in their situation so they will not feel so isolated, Fitzgerald said.
Tuition for parents and professionals is $15 per person, $25 per couple, or $40 for a family or group of 4. For young adults ages 14 and older, tuition is $10.