The 21st Annual Family Cafe: Connecting Resources to the Special Needs Community


Each June Orlando hosts the largest cross-disability conference in the state. The Family Café draws over 10,000 special needs attendees and their families each year and includes free admission and parking.  Held this year at the Hyatt Regency Orlando, the Family Café also provides financial assistance to help cover hotel accommodations.  Upon arrival, attendees are given a detailed conference guide with the option to also download the comprehensive Family Café app to a smartphone.

The three-day event, which kicked off June 7th, opened each morning with an engaging keynote.  The first speaker was June Huemann, a giant in the disability rights act movement, who helped develop and implement legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  Day two’s guest was executive producer and co-star of TLC’s hit show The Little Couple, Bill Klein, who discussed self-esteem, self-confidence and overcoming obstacles. The final day featured duo Dave Clark and Doug Cornfield.  Doug is the author of the book, A Pound of Kindness. The book tells the story of Dave, who suffered from polio, and how a classmate’s small act of kindness changed his life forever.

The conference included more than 200 breakout sessions most organized by tracks: Advocacy, Assistive Technology, Birth to Five, Disaster Preparedness, Employment, Mental Health, Military Families, Recreation, Smart Money, Youth, and this year’s new track, Dad’s.  Each track featured multiple sessions such as My Preschooler Has a Disability-What Happens Next, Sesame Street-Let’s Get Ready for Emergency Disaster Preparedness and The ABC’s of Special Needs Trusts and Guardian Advocacy.  There were also multiple stand-alone sessions such as Homeschooling Your Child with Special Needs and Search for Resources.

The Search for Resources breakout session was done by Stephanie Rogers of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.  In this session, Stephanie pointed out two online tools created by the APD to connect individuals with disabilities to available resources and organizations in their community.  The Florida Navigator ( is a web-based tool that allows the user to instantly search multiple government disability agencies by services they offer.  An easy to use menu allows the user to select services by life stages such as Early Years or School Years and what services they are looking for such as medical care or respite.  The other tool is the Resource Directory ( which is a database of over 8,000 resources for the special needs community searchable by location, disability and need.  Both are great and easy to use web-based tools that make looking for resources quick and reliable.

Another great feature of the Family Café was the Exhibit Hall of over 100 booths comprised of all types of services for the disabled, as well as some businesses run by the disabled.  NOVA Southeastern University College of Dental Medicine Special Needs Clinic had several of their resident dentists offering free dental screenings and dental health information.  Sunshine State Superkids had an exhibit that displayed one of their handicapped friendly soapbox racing cars.  Each August and March in Orlando they host a free all-day event for children with disabilities to be partnered with a nondisabled buddy and participate in a soapbox style race.  Easterseals of Florida was present and promoting Camp Challenge, their unique summer camp for children and adults with special needs located at their beautiful facility in Sorrento, Florida.  Camps include activities such as arts and crafts, swimming, rope courses with zip lining, sports, drama, music and more.  There were several therapy resources present including service and therapy dog programs, many of which were free to persons with disabilities.

In addition to the information, break-out sessions and a packed exhibit hall were some other great features for this family-friendly conference.  One was The M.O.R.G.A.N. Project Sensory Room.  This wheelchair accessible indoor sensory wonderland was a great place for everyone to decompress.  The dimly lit space was bathed in soft lighting and included multisensory experiences such as light cubes and gel orbs.  The M.O.R.G.A.N Project is an organization that not only includes a Sensorium facility but also has great online resources for a variety of special needs services in addition to an online Sensory Store.  Early Steps of Central Florida hosted a family-fun playgroup where families with infants and toddlers could enjoy family photos, face painting, puppet shows, adaptive books and toys, storytime and free play.  During their time at the event, families could network with other families and interact with the Family Resource Specialist and State office staff.

The Family Café also included The Annual Governor’s Summit on Disabilities.  The Family Café has always encouraged Floridians with disabilities or who are caregivers for the disabled to reach out and form relationships with elected officials.  In this summit, they create an opportunity to make that happen.

Although the conference is the largest project the organization does, it’s not the only one.  Each year they also put together a Questions and Answers Book after the conference.  During the event, along with their program guide, attendees receive what is called a “pink card.”  On this card, they can ask any questions they didn’t get answered during the conference.  The Family Café then addresses each question, organizes them by topic, and prints copies of the guide to be distributed at the next year’s event.  The guide also features survey results and comments from attendees.  If you miss attending, you can access the guide anytime online at their website. They also sponsor an annual Youth Summit, which is a smaller version of the Family Café for young people with disabilities between the ages of 15-30.  This year’s event will be August 2-3, 2019 at the Florida Hotel Orlando.

This year the conference had an exciting Vegas vibe.  The program bags were a sparkly gold, there was uplifting live entertainment around the clock and Saturday evening they held their first-ever Elvis Look-Alike contest!  Not only is this event a place where people with special needs can find resources and services, but it’s also a place where they find compassion, acceptance, and joy.  Program Director, Jeremy Countryman said the conference is created by families, for families.  I couldn’t agree more.  So, mark your calendars now!  Next year’s event will be June 5-7, 2020 also at the Hyatt Regency.  Registration opens February 14, 2020, and the deadline to apply for financial assistance ends April 15, 2020.  This is one event you absolutely don’t want to miss!

Published by

Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.