Speakers Advocate for Disabled Students at Haverhill Dinner

Asperger Works Executive Director Daniel R. Rajczyk and Secretary M. Eva Rajczyk  present the Brian Noble Award to state Sen. Barbara L’Italien. (WHAV News photograph.)

State Sen. Barbara L'Italien and U.S. Congresswoman Niki Tsongas.

State Sen. Barbara L’Italien and U.S. Congresswoman Niki Tsongas. (WHAV News Photograph.)

Besides facing educational challenges, disabled students are subject to harassment or worse from peers and adults alike.

That was the message of disability lawyer Richard Rodriguez during Asperger Works’ second annual “Dinner of Hope” Saturday night in downtown Haverhill. He told the audience a misunderstanding stemming from his speech impediment and other disabilities resulted in his arrest when he was 15.

“Why are you acting like Mickey Mouse by the way you are speaking. You’re speaking funny to me,” Rodriguez said. He explained he was initially detained because he printed his signature using rather than writing it on a subway pass. An officer misinterpreted his speech issues as sarcasm.

“The officer responded by handcuffing him and taking him to a dirty bathroom in a subway.” Rodriguez said the officer bashed his head against the wall of the stall, and arrested him for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. He said charges were dropped after his mother and a special education counselor explained his disabilities to officials.

Asperger Works Secretary M. Eva Rajczyk and Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini. (WHAV News Photograph.)

Asperger Works Secretary M. Eva Rajczyk and Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini. (WHAV News Photograph.)

State Sen. Barbara L’Italien, whose son also faces challenges because of autism, told guests she first sought public office in 2003 because she witnessed a lack of appropriate programs and understanding. When she raised her concerns with state public higher education officials, they responded by referring her to private schools. She said many families cannot afford private schools. L’Italien said state colleges and universities must be more creative and better match students with disabilities to employer needs. Previously, as a state representative, L’Italien wrote landmark legislation, requiring insurance companies to cover medically necessary autism therapies.

L’Italien was presented with the Brian Noble Award for her efforts. The Asperger Works Award was also presented to Dusya Lyubovskaya for her advocacy on behalf of the autistic community. The group also presented its Community Service Award to Northeast Independent Living Program of Lawrence. The agency recently provided Asperger Works with its first office space.

Other speakers included U.S. Congresswoman Niki Tsongas.

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