Nothing About Us Without Us: TWC students learn about the disability rights fight

Nothing About Us Without Us: TWC students learn about the disability rights fight

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July 17, 2014
“What do you know about disability and education?”

That’s a question Naté Dearden, a specialist with Washington, D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education, asked at the beginning of her presentation. Immediately, several hands from among the audience of more than 30 Washington Center interns shot up. About 10 students shared how their elementary, middle or high schools had overlooked or mishandled their learning struggles as children.

Suddenly, it became clear that the students’ disability rights civic engagement project hit closer to home than they expected.

Dearden’s session was one of five TWC students attended July 12-13 at the headquarters of The HSC Foundation – a D.C.-based nonprofit that works to improve access to vital services for individuals who face barriers, including disabilities. HSC funding has enabled students with disabilities to participate in TWC programs for years, but 2014 marked the first time the organization provided support to one of TWC’s signature civic engagement initiatives.

“It’s important for students with – and without – disabilities to understand the history of the rights movement and the issues we’re facing,” said Ryan Easterly, a 2004 TWC alumnus and HSC program manager who spearheads the institutions’ partnership. “Our goal is to have as many future leaders as possible to advocate for the support of people with disabilities – and some of those leaders may come through TWC.”

Easterly helped organize the summer 2014 TWC civic engagement summit, inviting many of HSC’s partners to speak directly to the students. Patrick Cokley, an adviser for the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, gave the audience an overview of the history of disability rights in America. One fact he shared - that forced sterilization of U.S. citizens with certain disabilities happened up through this century  - elicited gasps of shock and surprise from TWC students.

“We have a way of identifying people we think aren’t fit for our society and these people quickly end up being disenfranchised,” Cokley explained, “and the definition of ‘disabled’ changes with advances in technology.”

David Morrissey, executive director of the U.S. International Council on Disabilities, introduced students to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – an international treaty that seeks to bring global accessibility standards to higher levels. With the legislation up for Congressional approval within the month, Morrissey asked for the audience’s help, and students quickly wrote down the names of undecided senators they could contact from their home states.
Other topics addressed included disability rights in the workplace and the responsibilities of employers; how to design programs and physical spaces for accessibility and inclusion; and even proper etiquette when working or conversing with people with disabilities.

What struck many TWC interns most, though, were the number of self-advocacy organizations that exist for people with disabilities to take an active, central role in advancing their rights.Elizabeth Kuehn babysat for a child with disabilities in high school and after matriculating at Wake Forest University began volunteering at a special needs school near campus in Winston-Salem, N.C. Though disability rights are close to her heart, Kuehn said, the presentations from self-advocacy groups made her realize that what she considers helping people with disabilities may in fact be achieving the opposite.

“Instead of carrying one of our students who struggles to walk across the room, I will let them try to walk for a while, to let them do something on their own,” she said. “Helping them may be faster, or make me feel better, but it may not make them feel better.”

TWC and its students thank HSC and the following individuals and organizations for supporting the disability rights civic engagement project:

To view photos from the event, visit the Flickr gallery.

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