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Census: One in 10 children are disabled

According to the county's 2000 Census estimates, 10.1 percent of all children between 5 and 20 years old had some kind of disability.

By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002


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PORT RICHEY -- Cassandra Calkins was taken back to the hospital when she was 3 months old because she couldn't keep any food down. Gastroesophageal reflux, doctors told her mother, Donna.

It wasn't to be the first diagnosis for the little girl.

When Cassandra was 10 months old, Donna Calkins started noticing her daughter couldn't hear well. Cassandra had a hearing test, but doctors didn't think her hearing was that bad. Besides, the seizures and the asthma had to be dealt with as well.

Now, just after her fourth birthday, Cassandra can't hear the cartoons on TV.

"It's been gradual," Donna Calkins said. "But now it's to the point that it's severe."

Doctors aren't sure yet, but the hearing problems may be part of a larger illness, Refsum disorder, a rare affliction that affects the fatty covering on nerve fibers in the brain. Cassandra's doctors are testing for the disorder now.

The disorder can cause vision impairments, impaired muscle coordination, impaired hearing, rapid, involuntary to-and-fro eye movements, and a loss of smell.

In Cassandra's case, her hearing comes and goes. Some days she can somewhat hear her mother; others, she's close to deaf. She needs a $3,500 special adjustable hearing aid, but between state medical assistance and their own money, Donna Calkins, 31, can't afford it.

She can't afford specialized child care for Cassandra either, so Donna had to give up her job as a bartender. Child support payments are how she, Cassandra and her other two children, Samantha, 12, and Niquel, 10, get by.

Calkins isn't alone, struggling to get by with a child with special needs.

The Census Bureau estimates that in 2000, 10.1 percent of Pasco's children ages 5 to 20 had some kind of disability, higher than the state average of 8.7 percent.

According to Peter Kennedy, the interim director of Exceptional Student Education with the Pasco County School District, that number has remained relatively consistent in Pasco throughout the last part of the 1990s. There is no comparable disability data in the 1990 Census.

Pasco is 14th among the 67 counties in Florida in its percentage of children ages 5 to 20 with a disability. The highest in the state, Dixie County, has a child disability rate of 14 percent.

Pasco ranks 23rd in disabled adults ages 21 to 64, with 26.3 percent of its population reporting a disability. (Dixie is first again with 35.1 percent.)

And for people 65 and older, Pasco is 43rd in the state, with 40.4 percent of that population reporting a disability. Liberty County, with 60 percent, was the highest percentage in the state.

Kennedy said his department has polled parents informally to find out why Pasco has a higher than average percentage of disabled children. He said he has found that some parents moved their families to Pasco after word was spread by parents pleased with the programs and teachers in Pasco, Kennedy said.

The Pasco school district offers a prekindergarten program for children who have profound disabilities. According to Angela Porterfield, the supervisor for the program, the schools hold screenings several times a year to identify children who might need extra help.

If the child meets requirements, special education workers then meet with the parents, and services for the child are mapped out. There are different programs for children based on age.

For the past year, Cassandra has been learning how to read lips, but Donna Calkins said finding other help has been difficult. Frustrated, she sat down at her computer one day and sent e-mail messages to roughly 200 people, including the governor and any social service agency she could think of.

After the plea for help, several agencies stepped forward to help her try for other programs. Calkins also has been in touch with representatives of the school district's exceptional education programs.

Getting Cassandra into a school program would change the Calkins family's lives: Cassandra would have trained professionals helping her. And Donna could get a job while her daughter was at school.

"It would be a whole new ball game," Donna Calkins said.

-- Matthew Waite can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is waite@sptimes.com.

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