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Children's Book Offers Fresh Take On Disabilities

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Andy Marso/KHI News
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  Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer was on hand Thursday for the unveiling of a book to educate children about interacting with people who have disabilities.

“Darby Boingg Has an Adventure and Meets a Person with Disabilities” features Boingg, a wallaby with human characteristics, who meets Ian, a young man in a motorized wheelchair.

Sunflower State Health Plan hosted the book signing at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. The event featured  author Michelle Bain and Ian Kuenzi, a Topekan with cerebral palsy who was her inspiration.

“This is the real-life Ian,” Bain told a group of about a dozen kids gathered in the library auditorium before she began to read the story. “How cool is that?”

The children were at times distracted by a Sunflower employee in a full-body Darby Boingg costume, but they engaged with the story and later lined up to have books signed by Bain and Kuenzi.

Bain is an author and entrepreneur who has partnered with Sunflower State Health Plan’s parent company, Centene, on a series of books about health issues. The book unveiled Thursday will be distributed free to Sunflower clients.

Sunflower is one of three private insurance companies that administer KanCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

Kuenzi works as a services facilitator with Sunflower’s sister company, LifeShare. He helps Medicaid enrollees with disabilities get proper support services in their homes, schools and communities.

Bain said she spent hours talking with Kuenzi and his family before writing the book. The story features an animated “Ian” working up the courage to ask a group of able-bodied kids if he can play basketball with them, then answering their questions about his disabilities and how he can participate.

“I thought it was very important to have something for young kids to look at and reference when it comes to people with disabilities,” Kuenzi said. “(Something that shows) that we can do everything others can do with the right supports.”

Kuenzi’s mother, Shari Kuenzi, said that as a child Ian was expected to take on the same tasks and responsibilities as his four siblings.

“I think we instilled a lot of confidence in him,” Shari Kuenzi said. “He’s just always believed he can do things, and he does them.”

Ian Kuenzi was part of a KanCare panel last week during a disability forum in Topeka. At the forum, several Kansans with disabilities said gaining meaningful employment remains a challenge.

Barriers they cited included things over which the government has control, such as lack of transportation and the limits of the state’s vocational rehabilitation program.  

But some said employers’ misconceptions about what people with disabilities are capable of remains a hurdle, 25 years after passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act.

Colyer, a plastic surgeon who spearheaded the KanCare switch to managed care Medicaid, said the state is trying to “lead by example” in its own hiring of Kansans with disabilities.

Changing attitudes takes a long-term commitment, he said, and things like Bain’s book will help people better relate with their fellow Kansans who have disabilities and allow them the same opportunities for employment.

“Just making sure that people have a fair shot,” Colyer said.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in Heartland Health Monitor.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KCUR 89.3 and the Kansas News Service based in Topeka.
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