- Associated Press - Monday, April 6, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - As Andy Gardiner and his wife, Camille, drove home from the Orlando hospital with their newborn son 11 years ago, in shock at having just learned he had Down syndrome, they made a decision that reverberates in the Florida Legislature today.

With Gardiner now in the powerful post of state Senate president, lawmakers are poised to pass legislation that will put Florida on the cutting edge in education, savings and employment opportunities for the intellectually disabled.

The package of bills reflects their decision: They would raise Andrew Jr. no differently from any other child, expecting educational attainment and independence.

Gardiner wants all such children to benefit from the same attitude.

“So much of it is just raising awareness,” he said in an interview. “Thirty years ago, 40 years ago, most of these children would have been institutionalized. Parents were encouraged to not bring the child home.”

Today, “The youth are much more understanding and inclusive.”

The Senate president controls legislation in his chamber for two years, making Gardiner a powerful champion for his cause - probably the first legislative presiding officer to take up that cause, he said.

“I have a very short window of opportunity to effect change,” he said. “This time next year I’ll be heading home and somebody else will be here.”

National Down Syndrome Society President Sara Weir, who came to Tallahassee for the Senate votes on the package of bills, said it “has really put the state in a very forward-thinking position on the national scale.”

One bill would make Florida the ninth state to allow tax-free savings accounts for the disabled, with the contents not counted against eligibility for Medicaid or Social Security disability payments. Based on a new federal law championed by U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Jacksonville, it’s intended to help when they grow older and lose parental support.

Another allows universities to set up courses of study for students with intellectual disabilities. Weir said some 250 universities including the University of North Florida have such programs.

“They focus on career readiness to make you as employable as possible,” rather than traditional college academics, she said. “It’s more about the experience of being on a college campus” and learning independence.

A third bill increases funding for vouchers for special education programs for disabled children, currently about $14 million, to as much as $50 million.

Others encourage employment of the disabled in government and private industry; establish a financial literacy program; and recognize businesses that advance the cause of employing the disabled.

Weir said society’s view of the intellectually disabled is changing.

“We have a lot of younger people who want better opportunities for their children and aren’t taking no for an answer.”

What Gardiner calls his family’s “journey” in rearing a child with Down syndrome has affected his legislative career previously.

In 2010, he sponsored a bill to require ultrasounds for first-term abortions, which sometimes are parents’ response to learning a child will have the condition. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed it, but a later ultrasound bill became law.

Gardiner has pushed for expanded health insurance benefits for disabled children, and in 2013, led an effort to abandon the so-called “special diploma” for intellectually disabled high school students. Instead schools must work with parents to plan a course of study.

Gardiner said after their initial shock when Andrew was born, his wife became “the rock star,” co-founding a foundation that pays for children with Down syndrome to attend education and recreation programs. Today, he said, Andrew’s biggest problem is others’ perceptions of him as limited.

To combat that, Gardiner carefully chooses his language. Andrew is not “a Down syndrome child,” but “a child with Down syndrome,” Gardiner insists. He uses the phrase “people with unique abilities” instead of “disabled.”

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