Challenges don't hinder this student

Disabilities commission presents award for achievement to Marriotts Ridge junior

October 07, 2007|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to the Sun

For Rahul Rajagopalan, life is about mastering one challenge after another.

A junior taking advanced courses at Marriotts Ridge High School, he has a perfect 4.0 grade-point-average. He also plays the piano, is a clarinetist with the Columbia Concert Band and excels at tournament-level chess.

But the challenge some would think would be the most daunting is the one that fazes him least, said his school counselor, Will Schwarz.

Rajagopalan was born deaf.

"He is truly an exceptional young man," said Schwarz, "and he has not let his disability slow him down."

Rajagopalan's positive attitude, combined with his exemplary academics and leadership, convinced the Commission on Disability Issues to honor him with this year's Individual Student Achievement Award at its 13th annual awards program held Thursday evening, said chairwoman Sheri Thomas.

"This is a night where we `Celebrate the Possibilities' and focus on ensuring that all citizens can actively participate in all aspects of community life," said Thomas as part of her welcoming speech in the Banneker Room at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

Other award winners - selected by a 15-member volunteer commission that advises the county on disability issues - were: Joe Swetnam, executive director of Fidos for Freedom Inc., a dog-training facility where Rajagopalan volunteers; the Crab Shanty restaurant; Therapeutic and Recreational Riding Center Inc.; and Glenwood Community Center.

Fred Sirotkin, junior program coordinator at Fidos, said Rajagopalan "has never let his hearing loss be a handicap," and that the 16-year-old "has grown so much in the five years he's worked with Fidos."

He added: "Rahul is a super nice kid. He's the perfect volunteer, in that he proves by example that persons with disabilities are no different than anyone else."

Rahul was diagnosed with profound hearing loss at 2 months of age, said his parents, Raj and Malathi Rajagopalan.

After years of wearing two hearing aids, Rajagopalan received a cochlear implant four years ago, said his father. The implant, which bypasses natural hearing, is in his right ear, and he wears a hearing aid in his left. With the help of the devices and an adept ability to read lips, "Rahul does very well," his father said.

Rajagopalan has won other awards for his ability as a deaf musician and for breaking down deaf stereotypes, said his mother.

For Swetnam, who received the Individual Achievement Award, having his personal and professional lives intertwined is a blessing, he said.

He retired 16 years ago at age 45 from a career as a grocery store manager because of degenerative arthritis. A cousin who volunteered for Fidos for Freedom suggested he look into getting a mobility-assistance dog.

"I found out what wonderful people are behind this organization," Swetnam said, recalling how his wife and children were forced to wait on him constantly when he retired in 1991.

A year later, Swetnam began volunteering for the organization, which trains hearing, service and therapy dogs, and he became its executive director in 2004.

"Joe is recognized for improving the quality of life for his fellow citizens," said Thomas, who heads the volunteer commission.

Swetnam, who was accompanied by his wife, Barbara, brought along his assistance dog, a black Labrador retriever named Ace.

The Crab Shanty was honored with the Employer Award for being "a business with a track record of compassionate management" and for its partnerships with the Arc of Howard County and the Howard County school system. Owner William King accepted the award.

The Service Provider Award went to the Therapeutic and Recreational Riding Center Inc. for increasing the skills and independence of people through lessons in horseback riding. Accepting the award were director Helen Tuel and general manager John Tuel.

The Accessibility-Universal Design Award was presented to Glenwood Community Center for creating fully accessible facilities and services. Gary Arthur, county recreation and parks director, accepted the award.

Quality of life was the emphasis of the evening's main speaker, Catherine A. Raggio, secretary of the Maryland Department of Disabilities and an 18-year county resident.

"This is a great county, and the quality of life here is significantly better than in other parts of our country," she began. "The unemployment rate in Maryland is down again, to around 3.7 percent.

"Yet why is the unemployment rate for persons with disabilities so high? It is 60 percent in the state, and 70 percent in the nation."

Raggio listed several key reasons for pervasive unemployment, including: disabled job applicants being ruled out before they are interviewed, children with disabilities underperforming because of their parents' low expectations and disabled citizens being unwilling to risk losing established Social Security benefits by attempting to re-enter the work force.

"I am deeply committed to helping persons with disabilities achieve their personal and career goals," Raggio told the gathering. "We can do this by breaking down psychological barriers. We have more in common than separates us."

Information on the Commission for Disability Issues: 410-313-6431.

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