"Does anyone ever tease you or make fun of you?" Shelby Kennedy asked the third-graders at Manor Woods Elementary School in Ellicott City.
About half of the kids raised their hands.
"Well, in middle school I got teased a lot," Kennedy said. Then she explained how learning to play drums helped her gain confidence.
Now 17, Kennedy seemed poised beyond her years as she stood in front of a semicircle of cross-legged kids and discussed her life.
Kennedy, who was born with no arms below the elbows, speaks to schoolchildren every Friday as part of her work with the disABILITY AWARENESS project (dAp).
She remembers her elementary and middle school years as difficult and hopes her work with dAp will make things easier for other kids with disabilities.
"I really enjoy doing this," she said during the school's dAp Day. A wheelchair basketball game was under way in the gym, and others with disabilities were talking to students in other classrooms.
"What I like to do is make it really interactive." She asked the pupils a lot of questions and encouraged them to ask questions.
Kennedy, a freshman at Howard Community College, recently won the Youth Award from Howard County's Commission on Disability Issues. In addition to her full course load and work with dAp, she works at a music store in Laurel Mall, writes music and restaurant reviews for the student newspaper and dances.
The resident of Savage is pursuing a liberal arts degree and hopes to transfer to a four-year college. She is not sure what she wants to do after she graduates, but "I know I want it to be something in the arts."
Kennedy is a graduate of Project Access, a program that won this year's Service Provider award from the Commission on Disability Issues.
Linda Schnapp, learning disabilities specialist at Howard Community College, created the program at the school about five years ago. She said the cornerstone is a four-week summer session for high school students that focuses on academics, college survival skills and career development.
"The thrust in our society is to bring people with disabilities into the mainstream," she said. "That's part of what we are doing. We are striving to give students with disabilities the same opportunities that are available to students without disabilities."
The commission gave seven awards, recognizing people and institutions that have raised awareness, improved access, hired and inspired.
As Joseph "Ebbony" Singleton, winner of the Ralph Mulloy Advocacy Award, explained it: "What we try to do is break down a lot of barriers, and the strongest barrier is attitude."
Singleton works with Maryland Wheelchair Athletic Promotions, coaching and creating opportunities for athletes with disabilities.
A world-class athlete, Singleton took 10th place as a weightlifter in the 1992 Paralympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, and is training for the 2004 games in Athens, Greece.
Singleton, who suffered a spinal cord injury in Vietnam, also visits local schools as a member of dAp. He has fought for improved access to local restaurants, gyms, libraries and businesses.
"If I can't get in because the door's too small or there are too many steps, that's not independence," he said.
William Herndon, winner of the Individual Achievement Award, had too much time on his hands after a stroke prompted him to retire in 1995 from his job as the county's personnel director.
He responded by getting involved in Howard's Human Rights Commission. "What I realized after I got appointed there was that I enjoyed doing volunteer work," said Herndon, 53.
Since then, he has worked with several other organizations, including Big Brother/Big Sister. He also attends community college and takes care of his parents, who live in the Washington area.
Fidos for Freedom won the Special Achievement Award for the organization's work with service dogs that provide assistance to those who need it.
For more than 10 years, the Laurel-based group has taken dogs to Howard County schools as part of dAp, said Debbie Gavelek, executive director of Fidos for Freedom.
"We see about 10,000 kids in Howard County schools each year and talk about disabilities and how service dogs can enhance their lives," she explained.
Last year, Fidos for Freedom placed a dog with Hammond Middle School teacher Dori Tempio, who uses a wheelchair, creating the first teacher/service dog team in Maryland.
Sullivan, a black Labrador, carries Tempio's lunch, helps her in and out of the bathroom and picks up things she drops, Gavelek said.
The B&O Railroad Museum in Ellicott City won the Accessibility Award for the museum's work in making the historic building handicapped accessible.
As part of the museum's restoration, ramps were placed around the turntable and the freight house. It wasn't possible to make the caboose accessible, so one ramp was placed at an angle that makes it possible to see inside the caboose, said Lisa Mason-Chaney, the museum's director.
"It's very difficult for historic sites to do this and still maintain their integrity," she said. "They did a really good job here. You can get in everything but the caboose."
Turf Valley Resort & Conference Center was named Employer of the Year for its work hiring employees with disabilities.
"Mr. [Bob] Bertucco has gone out of his way to support local vocational rehabilitation agencies," notes his nomination from the Disabilities Services Group, referring to the resort's banquet chef. "He actively seeks out agencies to help fulfill his hiring needs."
"It works great," said Bertucco, who works with three employees from the Disabilities Services Group. "I've just done it because they're really great workers."