People with disabilities want to be included and they want to be successful like other people are, said Kevin Daly, a special education consultant and chairman of the Special Education Parent Teacher Organization (SEPTO).
It was that philosophy that led Susan St. Pierre, president of the local SEPTO, to honor a nine-year-old karate student with this year’s Kevin & Kathie Daly Advocacy Award. It is the first time the award has gone to a student.
Tori Carlson is a pretty top-notch karate student, said her teachers Brigitte Maurer and Adam Rylski of the Assembly of the Martial Arts Academy in Milford.
She could have easily ended a jousting match against a young boy with Down syndrome quickly and easily, but she didn’t. She gave the boy a run for his money, a good, fair and competitive match.
St. Pierre just happened to be in the audience at the jousting tournament when Tori went up against her competitor.
“To be honest, I was a bit curious about how this was going to happen,” St. Pierre said. “But, with the character and kindness of someone much older, Tori was gentle and unassuming when she jousted with this young man. She allowed him to joust competitively.”
St. Pierre, a long-time advocate for children with special needs, said the scene brought tears to her eyes.
Tori, who lives in West Haven with her parents, Tyler and Lindsey, has been studying karate about two years. The competition she was in when St. Pierre saw her was a jousting event, in which competitors use sticks.
“I went a little lighter than I usually do,” Tori said, adding that she didn’t go too light. “I wanted it to be challenging for him.”
The nine-year-old girl said that when she saw she was facing a boy with Down syndrome she thought quickly about how she would frame her game. She only had a minute, or less, to decide that there had to be some give, but enough take so that the match was real for the boy. She wanted him to walk away feeling good about the match.
Tori was honored with a plaque Wednesday night during an annual SEPTO dinner at the Margaret Egan Center.
Her karate instructors were there, and both said they were very proud of her.
“I think what Tori did was an example of what we teach our kids in class,” Maurer said.
Tori has a purple belt, which is higher than the green belt her competitor had, added Rylski. He said part of Tori’s job in the match was to challenge and teach her less advanced competitor.
As a SEPTO representative, Daly said he thinks Tori’s actions at that tournament demonstrated the spirit of SEPTO, and that she provided an example of how people should behave toward those with special needs.
“The lesson is the willingness to get to know someone, not to exclude anyone, and if they have needs, give them what they need to succeed when their peers are succeeding,” Daly said.