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  • Christinne Rudd

Plenty for Self-Advocates to Learn and Do at 20th Annual Family Café

It’s that time of year again. The Family Café is just around the corner and this year’s event -- June 15-17-- marks the 20th Anniversary of the weekend-long conference.

Family Café -- or "Café" as we regulars call it -- isn’t just for families of children and young adults with disabilities, it’s also a great place to learn more about self-advocacy and network with other adult self-advocates. Many self-advocates from across the state will be presenting at various break-out sessions throughout the weekend. FL SAND will also have a board meeting on Saturday and a booth in the exhibit hall to let participants know about different aspects of being involved in FL SAND.

In the following Family Café preview, you’ll find a brief history of Family Café and some highlights of the conference you shouldn’t miss. Hopefully, this can serve to help you start to plan your weekend even before arriving at the Hyatt Regency in Orlando. I had the opportunity to speak with Family Café President and CEO, Lori Fahey. Because it’s the 20th anniversary, I was interested in including the origins of Family Café and how it has grown and become so popular and instrumental within the disability community. Fahey started Family Café because she is a parent of a young girl with Cerebral Palsy. When she began seeking out necessary services for her daughter, she learned that, sadly, they were close to non-existent. After working in various positions within the disability community, she came to find out that other parents shared the same dilemma.

Fahey learned that the biggest things families were interested in learning were where to find necessary resources and how to navigate through the system to find the answers and resources they needed. Another issue was the need to connect with other families who had children that shared the same disability. Fahey knew of the importance of connecting families with children who have a disability, not only as a support system for each other, but to also have the outlet to discuss what a parent might expect from their child’s disability. She thought it would be a good idea to have some sort of parent orientation available to those parents who found out their child had a disability. And wouldn’t it be great, one thought, if this could all happen in one place at one time? The answer was “yes,” and Family Café was born. At the first Family Café there were 1200 attendees and this year’s event will have over 10,000.

In the 20 years of Family Café’s existence, Fahey has also had the pleasure of seeing children that come back to the event year after year and, once grown, take active roles in such things as volunteering and presenting in break-out sessions. When asked about a favorite memory, Fahey recounted how then Governor Jeb Bush left the biggest impression on her. During the Governor’s Summit held on Friday afternoon at the conference, Governor Bush took a question from two parents in the audience. Bush promised the parents he would assist with the issues they shared with them about their child. A few years later, at the Governor’s Summit, the parents returned and when called upon, told Bush their child had passed away. Governor Bush came off the stage to hug them. Fahey said it was very emotional and exemplified how much Governor Bush cared for the disability community.

This year, there will be 10 break-out session tracks available for participants to choose from. The tracks were originally designed with the idea that the participants could stay in one conference room and the trainings would come to them. They include Employment, Birth to 5 years, Youth, Recreation, Military Families, Advocacy, Disaster Preparedness, Smart Money, and Mental Health. New this year is the Assistive Technology Track. For the past two years, FAAST, or the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology, has partnered with its Regional Demonstration Centers (RDCs) and Family Café by offering an Assistive Technology pavilion. This year's AT pavilion has a superhero theme and will offer attendees a preview of services provided by the six FAAST RDCs. Attendees visiting the AT Pavilion will have the ability to receive Information and assistance along with device demonstrations and training. New features at this year's AT Pavilion will be an adaptive play area and FAAST Theatre.

Some of those Family Café alumni Fahey was referring to above are adult self-advocates today – and there’s plenty for them to learn and share as well. Family Café is the perfect venue to network with self-advocates from across the state and learn more about getting involved in the state’s self-advocacy movement. As mentioned, there’s an advocacy track, and several FL SAND members will be presenting break-out sessions, including

  • “So You Want to Start a Self-Advocacy Group? Trials, Triumphs and Tips

  • Speakin’ Up and Hangin’ Out: Self Advocacy as a Means of Socialization for Young Adults

  • Maximizing Advocacy and Positive Outcomes with Healthcare Providers

  • Making the Magic: Working in Orlando’s Theme Parks and Attractions

A big highlight of the weekend is the Governor’s Summit on Friday afternoon. This is where participants can connect with elected officials and policy makers to have a dialogue on issues facing Floridians with Disabilities. Among others, Governor Rick Scott and Senator Bill Galvano will be there to address attenders.

The keynote speakers this year vary as widely as the participants that attend Family Café. Steve Browne, author of How to Raise a Rocket Scientist, has two children with cerebral palsy, one of whom, indeed, grew up to become a rocket scientist. Also scheduled to speak on Saturday is Mia Ives Rublee, a Paralympian and disability activist. On Sunday, Micah Fowler from the ABC show “Speechless” will speak to the participants along with his parents and sister.

Certainly, this year’s Family Café will have something for self-advocates and everyone in the disability community. There will be opportunities to acquire new and sharpen advocacy skills helpful to maximizing independence as well as opportunities for making valuable connections that can come in handy in the future. This isn’t a weekend you’ll want to miss!

For more information on Family Café and how to register, go to

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