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DISABILITIES

By Daniel J. Vance

 

 

  Luverne, Minnesota, a rural town of 4,500 on the prairie, has an open mind and heart toward persons with disabilities. In 2000 and again in 2003, it's high school student body voted to crown as homecoming king a student with a disability.

  There is no other high school, or city, like this in America.

  Andrew Dooyema, born with Down syndrome, was first. The high school's 400 students chose him over four others. "He said all along that he wanted to be homecoming king," said Pam Dooyema, Andrew's mother, "and a lot of the kids knew it. He's a very likeable person, and everyone knows him. He was very surprised and happy to have won."
  And this year, it was Jonathan Foster, born with cerebral palsy. "To tell you the truth sir, I had no idea I'd win," said Jonathan over the telephone. "I was in shock. This community has been great to me. I'm glad this is my hometown."

  Down syndrome is caused by a defective cell division that creates an embryo with three No. 21 chromosomes instead of two. It is the most frequently noted cause of mental retardation. Andrew Dooyema and 350,000 other Americans have it.

  Jonathan Foster and 500,000 other Americans have cerebral palsy, which is a chronic condition affecting muscle coordination and body movement caused by damage to motor areas in the brain. The damage can occur from fetal development through infancy. Like Down syndrome, cerebral palsy is not a disease and can't be "caught."

  As for Andrew and Jonathan, they've been close friends for years. Andrew, 20, has his own apartment in Luverne and works in maintenance at the local hospital. Jonathan, 19, lives at home and sees Andrew when he visits the hospital for therapy. When they meet or talk on the telephone, the topics range from politics to sports, usually the Minnesota Vikings.

  So now it's Jonathan's turn to be a celebrity of sorts. Television stations in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, recently interviewed him. He said, "When I first found out I was up for being [homecoming king], I didn't want to be like Andrew and have all his news and television coverage. But I changed my mind about that. Kids with disabilities need to know that their goals can become a reality. Something good can come from the life of a person with a disability."

  For more, visit www.ucp.org, www.ndss.org, or www.danieljvance.com