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By Daniel J. Vance


  "Disabilities" recently had a birthday. It began as a column September 20, 2002, published in five Minnesota and Iowa weekly newspapers. Today, four Internet news services and 72 newspapers from 18 states have published "Disabilities" at least once.

  It has been a labor of love.

  There is a need. The U.S. officially has 49 million persons with at least one disability, however for whatever reason the Census doesn't count disabled persons under age 5. So the number perhaps is closer to 54 million. In researching last year I found few newspaper columnists regularly addressing disability. Disabled persons and their caregivers often crave information and encouragement, but most newspapers offer nothing.

  If you're reading this in your local paper, your editor likely has a personal link to a person with a disability, i.e., has a sibling, parent, neighbor or friend with one. As for me, I'm writing this column because my 8-year-old daughter was born with spina bifida, a birth defect. People not emotionally bonded to a person with a disability often don't understand.

  A person with a disability could be the elderly woman using a walker, the husband with bipolar disorder, the 9-year-old boy with dyslexia, the legally blind co-worker, the hard of hearing grandparent, the wife with major depression, the neighbor with Down syndrome, or the 8-year-old daughter with spina bifida.

  I recently came across two items that confirmed the need for "Disabilities." The Associated Press, newspapers and various websites carried the first item. In September, a healthy and muscular Florida State quarterback not only used an unauthorized handicap tag to park nearer classes, but a week later after being fined $100 he did it again.

  The U.S. has tens of millions of people like him who yet don't understand.

  The second came in a letter from friends teaching in Asia. The wife is a special education teacher. She said, "Today, I had a very illuminating conversation with one mother about the shame she feels because her daughter has Downs. The whole family feels ashamed. They avoid taking the child out of the home visiting or shopping."

  You can find thousands of families like that in America, too.

  I've enjoyed this last year interviewing people I normally wouldn't have met, such as Olympian Jean Driscoll, sportswriter Sarah Morris, actor Chris Burke, Joni Eareckson Tada, Assistant Secretary Grizzard, and many others. I welcome your ideas for columns. Contact me through www.danieljvance.com.