Thursday, July 22, 2010

Wisconsin teens train for a future in disability advocacy

From The Courier-Life in Wisconsin:

Two Holmen teens recently went to Madison, met with legislators and spent a week learning how they, with their own challenges and gifts, could make a difference.

Andrea Clark and Katy Durkin were part of a select group of 27 youths at the 2010 Youth Leadership Forum in Madison to learn how to be advocates for people with disabilities. The Youth Leadership Forum, held at Edgewood College, is an annual event sponsored by the Governor’s Committee for People with Disabilities. The event brings together teenagers with disabilities from all over the state who have shown leadership skills. (Both are pictured.)

Counselors at the forum, many who themselves have disabilities, teach them to advocate for themselves and be organizers in their communities. “I have a whole book of phone numbers of agencies and a bag full of information,” Clark said.

During the week-long stay, Clark and Durkin and the other delegates also met with state legislators, learned how a bill becomes law, met Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abramson and Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton and discussed finding their own career paths with business leaders from Milwaukee and Chicago.

As part of the application process, students identified three problems they saw in their community they wanted to see changed. While at the forum, the delegates broke into small groups to solve the problems.

Clark, 16, is a junior at Holmen High School. She has cerebral palsy, is confined to a wheelchair and is already on her path of advocacy.

The first problem Clark identified was that while the auditorium at the school is accessible for people with handicaps and has a special seating area cut out from the rest, the seats in that cut-out area are not marked as reserved for handicapped students. Clark said she is almost always asking someone to move to another seat.

Another challenge Clark is presented with each day at school is the main office door is not equipped with a power-assisted door switch. She’s already got the ball rolling about a fix on that. As a delegate at the YLF, Clark learned how to use the proper channels for making changes. So she started with her principal, Bob Lecheler, who will talk with the district’s facility manager.

Clark expects she will be told there is no money in the budget, but she hasn’t planned what to do after that. “One step at a time,” she said.

But she is thinking ahead to her plans to major in communications at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, known as “the most handicapped accessible state school,” Clark said. “I will mention things that bother me if I see something. They have a reputation to uphold.”

She would also like to see some co-curricular activities at the high school geared for students with disabilities. “There’s no place where disabled kids can get together and hang out or meet new friends.”

As a 2010 graduate of HHS, 18-year-old Durkin is already looking to college and beyond with things she would like to see changed. Since she’s been driving herself to Globe University for veterinarian technician classes, she has noticed many other drivers speeding.

“It’s one of my pet peeves,” she said.

Durkin, who has a speech and learning disability, would also like to advocate for more fuel-efficient cars and for more affordable health insurance for people with disabilities. “We are sick more and go to doctors more than others,” she said.

She is using what she learned at the YLF to start making changes. “The forum is really helpful if you want to make a difference in the community,” Durkin said. “The forum is also very useful because they gave the delegates packets about disability rights and rights you have when you’re 18 years old.”

The two have fond memories of the big social event the last night of the forum. On Thursday night, the delegates and counselors put on a talent show with skits, singing and piano playing. But mostly they remembered the dance.

“I stayed up until 1:30 in the morning,” Clark said. “It was the biggest mistake I ever made.”

But it certainly wasn’t a mistake going to the forum. “The most valuable thing I learned was to be open to what others have to say and be an advocate for people with disabilities,” Clark said.

“Without advocates, the disabled won’t get what they want or need,” Durkin added.