Empowering Youth With Disabilities
“If we begin looking at disability as part of the spectrum of human diversity, teach one person that same idea, and each person taught pays it forward, inclusion would be the norm.” — Jennifer Walsh
Excerpted from Jennifer Walsh’s speech at Empowering Youth with Disabilities’ 10th anniversary celebration, 2017
I’m a woman, Catholic, Irish and Italian, and a certified therapeutic recreation specialist. Oh yeah, I also have a severe disability. These are only some of the layers of who I am.
When I was in school, I would have liked to be a part of the Empowering Youth with Disabilities Project because I didn’t know any adults with disabilities. My primary friends in school had disabilities. We were all in mainstream classes, trying to make friends who didn’t have disabilities. Some of us had better luck, depending on the disability. At recess, the kids with disabilities had their own clique, like every other group. Some who didn’t have a disability would like our wheelchairs, so we would draw attention to ourselves, like going really fast or popping wheelies. It was all about how cool we could be, so they would talk to us.
“If you have a disability, you still have a personality, and the same group dynamics play out. In my school group, there were the cool kids, the shy kids, the comedians, the nerds, the divas.”
If you have a disability, you still have a personality, and the same group dynamics play out. In my school group, there were the cool kids, the shy kids, the comedians, the nerds, the divas. And though we were mainstreamed in classes, we weren’t necessarily mainstreamed socially.
Humans are social animals. Being engaged is the way we learn and grow. Everyone wants to have the feeling of belonging, regardless of disability. We all are a part of different community groups, some we can actively choose and others that society places on us because of our DNA and environment influences.
But when you have a membership in the disability community, it somehow negates all of the other memberships we may belong to, and the expectation that we will contribute to those other groups is null and void. This contradicts the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other disability civil rights laws. When we are asked to participate, we get two options: Be an amazing advocacy specimen who can’t do anything wrong or be a lump who can’t be unsupervised.
When I was in a child, inclusion in the community wasn’t a priority — it wasn’t even on the radar. My parents expected me to participate in normal activities, but they didn’t put much thought into how to accomplish that. And there were the contradictions: My dad wanted to protect me from everything. If it was up to him, I would live in a bubble. My mom, on the other hand, wanted me to experience life. I guess they thought inclusion would just happen if I participated in normal stuff, which wasn’t necessarily true.
The most resistance my parents received was from special education teachers. As the gatekeepers to the general education class, if they didn’t believe you could succeed, you wouldn’t even get a chance. And if you were placed in a general education class, that teacher would base her assumptions about you on the special education teacher’s recommendation.
I’m one of those people who sees someone doing something and thinks, “Why can’t I do that?” and will try to figure out how my disability will affect it afterward. By 8th grade, I was fully mainstreamed, ran for student government and went on the trip to Great America. In high school, I took dance, art and journalism because my resource teacher didn’t think I could. I was in the adventure movie club, went to high school dances, asked someone to my prom.
“I’m one of those people who sees someone doing something and thinks, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ and will try to figure out how my disability will affect it afterward.”
As a student, I assumed I had equal opportunity to do most things in life just because I was in the room. My parents and the school environment fostered this assumption. I did have to prove my capabilities, but children with disabilities have more access to supports and interventions then adults with disabilities. When students leave high school, they lose most of the supports that helped them participate in their community.
In college at San Francisco State University, a friend introduced me to a camp for adults with physical disabilities where I was amazed to see so many adults with cerebral palsy and the counselors treating all campers as equals. I moved into the dorms on the S.F. State campus, played power soccer for Bay Area Outreach Recreation Program and was introduced to sit skiing. In my last year of college, I had to take an outdoor adventure class that included a rope course at Fort Miley, rock climbing on Mount Tamalpais and white water rafting on the American river.
I was active, but career choices were more problematic. During my first year at S.F. State, a Department of Rehabilitation counselor asked me what I wanted to do with my college education, and I told her I wanted to teach kindergarten or 1st grade. She said I couldn’t because of my speech and because I couldn’t write on the black board, but that DOR would help me become a computer programmer. After a few years, I told DOR I needed a communication device: Instead of becoming a teacher I was going to be a recreational therapist. I got no help until my last year at S.F. State when another DOR counselor saw my potential and actually listened to how I wanted to solve my communication issues.
Due to my physical limitations, I couldn’t get a job as a therapeutic recreational specialist, even with a Master’s Degree and certificate. I expected the recreational therapy field to be more open-minded because it’s based on adapting activities for people. When I realized my speech disability wasn’t my downfall but an asset to be employed, I sought training at Bridging Communities Through Alternative Communication, a school for students who use alternative augmentative communication, or AAC.
My current job with Community Living Campaign allows me to train long-term care facility residents to use computers to reconnect with their community, family and friends. I got my other job — facilitating an AAC group — after a supervisor of a family support program saw me using my device at a coffee shop.
My message to teachers is that it’s not enough to have high expectations for your students — you also need to give them the tools to live up to those expectations so they can make informed choices about their future. Also, you are ambassadors who can model how others should interact with people with disabilities. If you treat the person like anybody else, other school staff will follow your example: Show the same emotion that you do with anyone else, in the appropriate amount. If you don’t like something your student is doing or saying, say so. Challenge your students emotionally, intellectually and physically, and recognize that a developmental disability doesn’t mean the person stops learning after a certain point. It just means it might take longer. Focusing on the disability and the textbook definition of a child’s limitations only magnifies the differences and isolates the child.
“If we begin looking at disability as part of the spectrum of human diversity, teach one person that same idea, and each person taught pays it forward, inclusion would be the norm.”
Students with disabilities have their own unique personalities. Get to know the techniques and talents they’ve developed to deal with the disability so they can belong to some part of society. The bottom line is, the disability should be the last thing that’s taken into account when deciding to participate in activities. As an ambassador, you have the charge to use your students’ talents to help multiply their capabilities. Remove the power of the disability and just see the student for who he or she is.
A big part of inclusion in society is dispelling the myths that disability is abnormal. Society usually looks to the support staff, friends or family of people with disabilities for guidance on how to understand and interact with them, as if different languages are being spoken. But the more people with disabilities participate in the typical activities of an average person, the novelty will wear off.
As a society, we tend to make up models and assumptions, and to fit everything into them no matter the misconceptions or believed untruths. If we begin looking at disability as part of the spectrum of human diversity, teach one person that same idea, and each person taught pays it forward, inclusion would be the norm. Congratulations Ivana on 10 years of successfully providing mentorships opportunities in schools.