Hey y’all, it’s Derek again! I am back after an eventful three days in California to discuss my experiences and some of the policies I was newly introduced to!
Day 1: A Rocky Start with a Great Ending
Day 1 got off to a rocky start with an early flight out of the Atlanta airport. If you know anything about flying while disabled, I’m sure you can guess why. My bag tags wouldn’t print, for starters, so we had to deal with that, then waiting on a wheelchair took about twenty minutes. We got through that, then the security line (yes, even in the special assistance line) took another thirty minutes. But, that was fine, we got through it. Got on the airplane and got situated, then hit a couple of rough patches of turbulence. And, after five hours, we landed in California. I met my contacts in the airport, then took a nice car to the hotel and checked in.
I rested in my room for a bit, then I and a majority of the other youth members went to an Italian place for dinner. I really began finding “my people” in the youth group at this first dinner and connected closely with them. They were the other two queer/neurodivergent people, as well as a paralegal from Oklahoma with invisible disabilities like mine. We stayed out for probably a bit too long, but we had a great time! Jetlag surprisingly didn’t hit me too hard at all this trip, which was awesome!
Day 2: The Work Begins
On Day 2, we had a full day. We began at 8am with breakfast after we picked up our policy packets (identification, slide deck, agenda, other supplemental information), and of course, I sat next to the autistic queer kid I grew close to the night before. There was chocolate-covered french toast, which was amazing. I spent the hour learning more about the youth sitting at my table and what their ambitions were and discovered we all want to go into law or public policy. I was also introduced to representatives of the U.S. Department of Labor, the Maryland Department of Disabilities, and the Delaware Division of the Visually Impaired who sat at the tables around me.
We reviewed the guideposts for success, state policies/program scans, school/WBL/youth leadership, family engagement, and system coordination/professional development. These reviews were all very interesting and gave us slight opportunities to speak to our experiences going through these systems. My table took every opportunity presented to ask questions or share our insight, and a few policymakers in the room seemed to be very interested in what we had to say. Looking through these policies and program scans let me and the other youth participants see what our and other states are doing to address the aforementioned guideposts for success.
Then, we grabbed our box lunches and loaded the bus for our off-site visits. The first off site visit was to an employment center for disabled people. This visit was… not great to say the least. It reeked of ableism from the moment I walked in, and the environment was not conducive to successful employment. It felt very disconnected from the community, and they couldn’t answer basic follow-up questions regarding their approaches to substance abuse and mental health (which were their main two talking points). I was glad to be out of there and to the next facility the moment I saw it. It was a complete and total opposite of the other center. It was a small charter school called Health Services High and Middle College that focuses on being student-led and building transition to college/workforce into all aspects of their curriculum. The atmosphere was so open and it was just awesome. I said it there and I’ll say it again here, that every state needs to create a school following their curriculum, and I’m working to make that happen.
We went back to the hotel and were released to our own devices. As soon as we got off the bus, myself and one of my friends/close colleagues chased down a policy maker from Massachusetts who discussed disability as a qualifier. We caught him right as he was about to step on the escalator and diverted him to the elevator where we discussed the research he was doing and the importance of diversity in the workplace. He offered to buy us appetizers at the diner in the hotel, but we declined as we had already made dinner plans for pizza with another participant. So, we went up to our room to freshen up and change, then walked the streets of San Diego (with supervision, of course) for 2 miles trying to find pizza. We found some, it was great, then we grabbed ice cream on our way back to the hotel. We rested, then woke up for day 3!
Day 3 and beyond: The Work Continues
Day 3 was scheduled as a half-day, and probably gave me the most opportunity for networking and hands-on experience out of all three days. We started at breakfast again, where I talked further to DOL and Maryland about my goals and ambitions for the future. We started programming by addressing COVID responses, as well as telehealth services.
Then, we split off into breakout groups with policy makers to develop “positive profiles” which basically consisted of identifying our strengths and hobbies. I led my group and we were very hands-on and collaborative, discussing any and everything to reflect both on the task at hand, and the conference as a whole. After time was called, we went back out to the big room, where another one of the participants (the paralegal from OK) finally said the quiet part out loud: we felt like the content wasn’t geared to us, we didn’t have enough opportunity for speaking or direct work with policy makers because of the way things were setup, and the vibe of the conference was very performative. I voiced my agreement to all of that, then that part was over, so we returned to our original tables while prep began for the trauma-informed care segment.
A facilitator came to another one of the participants (who was in my inner circle) and asked them if they’d like to help facilitate the trauma informed care discussion. They suggested I do it with them, and I agreed (obviously). We spent 15 minute piggybacking off each other’s points and ideas around systems integration and quality of care, then learned about Maryland’s WIOA initiative that allows self-attestation as a qualifier for services. I slipped out into the hall to find the restroom, and the program director approached me to thank me for my input and remind me that this was a 3-conference series with continuing collaboration, which I appreciated, as it seemed they really heard what I was trying to say.
We discussed career and technical education, then wrapped for the conference. I had lunch with a close friend/fellow participant, then they had to go catch a car for their flight back home. I split off and went to a meeting I arranged with a different org I’m working with, and we discussed the 2022 strategy. After that, I got back to the hotel and went to the computer lobby to work on follow-up emails. A policy maker from Oregon approached me and discussed their initiative for youth involvement during their in-services and offered me a seat at that table. I said yes, and I can’t wait for that and our last 2 conferences next year. Then, I had dinner with a couple other participants who were still around and caught my shuttle to the airport afterwards.
Since I’ve been back, the majority of my work time has been spent on Linkedin connecting with the policymakers and other participants, as well as sending follow-up emails to keep myself on radars. I’ve also begun working to bring some of the policies I was exposed to back to Alabama!
If I haven’t bored you to death with the bit of event summary, I’m glad you’re still here. I want to now go into how young advocates like myself can prepare for adulthood and get involved at advocacy.
The biggest tip I can recommend is find your resources. Every state has an office of disability rehabilitation (often called something along the lines of (State) Department of Rehabilitation Services or (State) Department of Disabilities) that has proven critical for me as I explore employment/college options and as I need resources to ensure my community engagement (for example, Alabama offers adaptive drivers training that lets me learn to drive safely and accommodates the needs I have for car modification). These services aren’t talked about often, but they are so important to the community.
In becoming a “better” advocate, I say be yourself 100%. Sugarcoating your needs or brushing them off is the easy thing to do, but in a society so primarily nondisabled, we must stick up for the things we need to ensure access. I say this often, but I’ll say it again: society creates barriers for disabled people because, generally, disabled people are seen as less than. We must fight that thinking and the associated inadequacies to ensure our access. I know it’s so, so hard and so defeating at times. Trust me, I’ve been put through the wringer about as far as I can be, and I know some of you have too. But, I am here for and will continue to work with anyone who needs me, just reach out to me on Twitter (@derekischmitz) or shoot me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will do this, ensure our access and accommodation, together and we will not look back. Thank you for reading. I’ve enjoyed sharing my experiences with you.