Federal disability leaders were asked “grass roots” questions by three Next Steps at Vanderbilt students when the officials were in Nashville to meet with disability organizations and attend the TennesseeWorks Think Employment! Summit.
Next Steps at Vanderbilt students met with Aaron Bishop, Administration on Disabilities Commissioner; Jamie Kendall, Acting Independent Living Administration Director; Jennifer Johnson, Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Deputy Director; and Ophelia McLain, Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Office of Innovation Director, during their 3-day visit to Nashville and the TennesseeWorks Think Employment! Summit.
Bryshawn Jemison, Conor Dolan, and John Moore answered questions from the visitors about their experiences as college students in a postsecondary education program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Then the students asked their own questions, opening up a frank discussion about employment, education, and the civil rights of people with disabilities.
BRYSHAWN JEMISON: What is the advice you can give to help people with disabilities fight for their rights?
OPHELIA MCLAIN: I think it is good to be with other people who want to fight for the same things that you do. That might be with other Next Steps students or others who think like you. There is strength in numbers. When there are things you see that aren’t working very well in your community, you can get with other people who agree and you can fight that way.
JENNIFER JOHNSON: Another important thing to remember is to listen to other people. So if you’re fighting for your rights and people don’t understand why you’re doing that or they disagree with you, try and find ways to better understand what they’re thinking and what their perspective is. If you can find out why they don’t think the particular issue is important, it will help you explain to them why it is.
JAMIE KENDALL: Bryshawn, this is a great question. When I was your age, honestly, I wasn’t really thinking about that. So, I just want to say that it’s awesome that you’re already thinking about your own rights as a person with a disability. Also, I agree with my friends and colleagues that it’s always important to communicate and talk things through. It’s very important to speak up in a respectful way and to communicate that you also deserve respect. People with disabilities are just like all people, and we want the same things, right?
AARON BISHOP: The only thing I would like to add is that it can be hard at times to speak up for yourself or to speak up for others. Don’t be afraid. If you are being taken advantage of, or if you feel like you aren’t being treated well, don’t be afraid to say it. Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself, to go out and find the help you need, and to fight for your rights.
JEMISON: Yes, sir.
CONOR DOLAN: How do you help people with disabilities find a job?
JOHNSON: Well, that’s another really good question. I think, for all of us, we truly believe that finding jobs is one of the most important things for people with disabilities. So I think we’re doing a lot of different things to help. One example is that we funded the project that helped to get Next Steps at Vanderbilt started, which ultimately aims to get all of you quality jobs. It’s so nice to be here speaking with you and to be reminded about the importance of programs like this.
MCLAIN: We also provide funding to different organizations to encourage them to speak with employers, even to teach employers, about working with people with disabilities. We help organizations get partners together to speak about what is going on within their own states, like here in Tennessee, so that they can do what is best for the local community and see how best to increase employment for persons with disabilities.
BISHOP: We also do a lot of work directly. We’ve had high school students do internships in our office, to help them build their resumés and gain job experience. And then we’ve also had college students with disabilities intern at our office. We think it’s important to provide that direct exposure and to encourage opportunities for people to try out different jobs, so they can get a good feel for what they like to do and what they don’t like to do.
KENDALL: Conor, I would just add that whether you’re a person with a disability, or a person without a disability, a part of finding a job for people is having the right skills to be able to do the job. I think that’s one of the great things about being in Next Steps and in programs like it. These college programs are helping young people to increase skills and to make you more competitive so that people want to hire you for a job. And that’s a very important part of getting a job for everybody, whether you have a disability or not.
JOHN MOORE: I have a question. What is exciting about people with disabilities going to college?
MCLAIN: I think it’s very exciting that people with disabilities are going to college. You get to see what else is out there beyond high school. You get to see what you can do and be, and you get to be a part of a community of other people who are learning just as you are.
JOHNSON: I think what excites me about it is that I view students like yourselves as ambassadors. It wasn’t too long ago that there weren’t many people with disabilities on college campuses getting opportunities. You have the important job of helping other people learn more about people with disabilities and about what they’re capable of doing. Just by being here, you are changing attitudes. It’s also exciting to have heard from you about all the friendships you’re forming. We all need friends and college is a great place to make them.
Courtney Taylor is VKC associate director of Communications and Dissemination.
Pictured top of page: AOD Commissioner Aaron Bishop and Administration for Community Living staff are visiting with Next Steps students, VKC leadership, CAC members, and DD Network partners. Photo by Kylie Muccilli.