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Senate President Uses His Power To Help Those With 'Unique Abilities'

Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times

New Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, is using his power in the Florida Legislature to help individuals with disabilities - or "unique abilities" as he often says. He's pushing bills relating to education and overall economic independence for the disabled.

The bills would expand education options beyond high school, promote the adoption of kids with disabilities in foster care and provide incentives for businesses to hire disabled workers.

For this father of three, it's a considerable opportunity to enact meaningful policy that will impact families like his. Gardiner's 11-year-old son Andrew has Down syndrome.

Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas has spent a lot of time with the Gardiner family and wrote an article about how Gardiner is using his post to give disabled kids and their families more options. We asked her to share some of her thoughts after meeting with the family. 

How is Andy Gardiner using his power in the Legislature differently than what we’re used to seeing?

His number one priority is very personal for him. His experience raising a child with Down syndrome has, I think, introduced him to the hurdles and challenges that face families with children with developmental and physical disabilities. Dealing with disabilities is just kind of one of those sideline issues that there are rarely high-profile advocates.

What would you say is Gardiner’s goal with all of this legislation?

I think the ultimate goal is to provide opportunities for students so that after they've gone through high school, they have somewhere else to go -- rather than just assuming these kids have to stay at home with parents. Many of them can live independently, work independently, but they need extra training. Right now, (many disabled) kids do not graduate with a degree, and they want to change that.

Gardiner’s wife, Camille, has also done quite a bit. She's launched a website, started a foundation, and you learned that she's even thinking about running for her husband’s Senate seat when he is forced out by term limits. It seems that they both have really become activists for kids with Down syndrome and other issues.

One of the biggest challenges they found was the public acceptance of their son. Their expectation is that he's going to finish high school and go on to college and have a job that contributes to society. But they realized that society didn't see it that way.

So Camille put together many other parents in the Orlando area and they started a foundation. They use that to help provide services for parents who were in their same situation. They also use it to do training of healthcare professionals and teachers so that teachers who have Down syndrome or other children with disabilities in their classrooms will understand a little better what the expectations could be.