11:21 a.m., June 25, 2009----From 1620 to the beginning of the 19th century, persons with disabilities were kept at home by their families; and from 1800-1880 they were either institutionalized or at home, but still not out and about in society.
However, from 1940 on, the climate began to change, and persons with disabilities entered the public sphere.
Their value to society and their rights as citizens were recognized, and the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 to protect them and give them accessibility, not only physically, but to jobs, transportation and education.
This was the brief history lesson for the participants in the Junior Partners in Policymaking program for 20 young adults, with and without disabilities, ages 15-22, who were living on the University of Delaware campus last week with classes in the day and entertainment and social programming in the evenings, from art therapy to karaoke.
Coordinated by doctoral UD student Megan Pell, who has eight years experience as a special education teacher in Maryland and Brazil, the program's goal is to encourage the participants to become advocates for those with disabilities and for themselves. The program links those who want increased social and political support for individuals with disabilities with those who make public policy.
The classes cover such topics as assertiveness, self-determination and understanding government processes, and culminated in a visit to Legislative Hall in Dover.
One session was on setting goals and working towards them. “What were your goals when you were five years old?” Pell asked with a variety of responses from eating ice cream with mom to riding a bike without training wheels.
The lesson continued up the age ladder to the present. One student wanted to become a wrestler, another wanted to run a farm with animals, another to be a nurse and one wanted a job to help her mom. Using nursing as an example, Pell suggested visiting a hospital, getting to know people there and volunteering as steps along the way to training as a nurse.
“Set your goals, be persistent, assert yourself, practice advocacy, take steps to do what you want to do and share ideas,” Pell encouraged.
At least one participant has been involved in the Christina School District's Networks school-based enterprises programs, which provides work opportunities in food services, graphics, auto work and other fields. Pell suggested that participants could advocate for similar programs elsewhere.
Another class session dealt with practicing advocacy. The Delaware General Assembly is considering laws for improving access to dentistry and the para-transit system for persons with disabilities. The group split up into three sections to discuss letter writing, telephone calls and testimony as advocacy skills.
The next day they visited State Rep. Richard Cathcart (R-Middletown), had a tour of Legislative Hall and received certificates for completing the program.
Sponsored by the Delaware Developmental Disabilities Council, the program has been run by UD's Center for Disabilities Studies and is offered every other year. The program is unique nationally as it helps young adults to transition into the “senior” Partners in Policymaking program.
UD students who minor in disabilities studies, including Andrea English, Megan Moritz, Denise Jenkins, Greg Neal and Julie Mastrella, assisted Pell with the program. The Disabilities Studies minor program is coordinated by Laura Eisenman, associate professor in the School of Education.
Article by Sue Moncure
Photos by Ambre Alexander