Monday, February 19, 2018

A Mississippi “Hand Up” for People with Disabilities

Try to imagine calling out and there is no one there to hear. Imagine watching others participating in activities you will never be able to personally enjoy. Imagine trying to use a public facility that excludes your entrance because it doesn’t accommodate your particular disability.

Now imagine a person who actually hears the cries of despair, and with a heart as big as all Mississippi, understands when a person says, “I don’t want a handout; I just need a hand up.”

Janie O’Keefe had searched for years to find suitable activities in which her daughter with disabilities could participate. She began to discover other folks with disabilities who struggled not only to find recreational activities, but also organizations, either private or governmental, that could educate, train, or give financial support to individuals with disabilities. A solution was needed.

As Janie further researched the situation, she found that there are approximately 471,504 individuals living in Mississippi that have a disability. The majority are living far below the poverty line and unaware of the services available to them, the organizations offering them, and how to apply. They are socially isolated and severely lacking in the social capital that provide a sense of personal power. Through further research she discovered that there were no lists of activities for disabled people or agencies that could give assistance in other areas of education, training, financial support, and the like.

Because of this research, in 2002 Janie founded O’Keefe Educational Media. One of their original projects was to produce an educational video about recreational opportunities for those with challenges. Out of this ‘Disability Connection’, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization was born and now operates to inform, advocate for, and engage people with disabilities.

Disability Connection hopes to change the lives of people with disabilities by striving to create a connected community. Its goal is to inform, assist, and participate in collaborations that engage individuals with disabilities. By eliminating barriers and fostering cooperation and understanding, they believe everyone can feel accepted and fully participate in our community.

Disability Connection creates and produces many diverse and educational programs:

  • Planned, built and launched the first Disability Connection Community Playground in Harrison County.
  • Hosts major events that reach 500-1,000 participants each, including: Arbor Day run/walk/roll, the Art Ability Fair, Mayor’s Disability Health Fair, and People with Disabilities/Disabled Veterans Job Fair. Up to 80 organizations and over 200 volunteers become involved in these events annually.
  • Hosts sports and art clinics for individuals with disabilities, including veterans.
  • Created the “Mississippi Gulf Coast Community Resource Guide” for individuals experiencing unemployment or underemployment, to inform them of resources available.
  • Hosts Disability Network Meetings that educate, encourage, and create collaborations between more than 50 Coast organizations.
  • Provides food, clothing, gifts, assistance, and referrals to hundreds of families.
  • Launched, a website that encourages self advocacy for individuals with disabilities. It features a community bulletin board, blog, gallery, calendar of community events, and encouraging videos.

In 2014, Disability Connection will launch “The Connection,” an internet resource center that is home to more than 2000 web pages promoting recreation and socialization for individuals with disabilities, veterans, and seniors. Disability Connection relies on support from the local community through volunteers and donations. If you would like further information, or would like to participate and support Disability Connection, please visit the website at or call (228) 604-4020.


Chaz Mikell is a musician, writer, and actor living in Gautier, MS.

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