Young people with disabilities have more opportunities and more challenges than at any other time in our nation’s history. With the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), they have unprecedented opportunities to fully develop as constructive, contributing members of our society. However, many need encouragement and information about resources to develop as leaders in their communities.
The Youth Leadership Forum is an educational training program designed to empower students with disabilities and equip them with the additional skills needed to become leaders by example. Initiated in 1992 by the California Governor’s Committee on the Employment of Disabled Persons, the program quickly spread across the country and is now conducted annually in more than 33 states. Maryland held its first Youth Leadership Forum (MD-YLF) in August 2000 and integrates state agencies, community advocates, and approximately 30 students who serve and represent the diversity of people with developmental disabilities in the state. The forum is held annually with events scheduled at Towson University—however, in light of current circumstances, this year’s forum will be completely virtual.
Amity Lachowicz, a Representative Payee Project Manager for Disability Rights Maryland, will be volunteering for the MD-YLF for a second term this year and says that the 2020 MD-YLF will be “unique,” but certainly no less exciting and important for young people with disabilities.
What is the purpose of the Maryland Youth Leadership Forum? Why is it needed?
YLF teaches leadership and advocacy skills to students with disabilities in their last two years of high school. Traditionally, participants spend four days/nights in the dorms at Towson University to gain a college experience. Due to COVID-19, YLF is being hosted virtually this year. Almost all of the staff at YLF are individuals with disabilities, which creates a unique dynamic with the students.
YLF is unique in that it allows students with disabilities to come together in a safe space to discuss their challenges, successes, hopes, and dreams with people who share the experience of navigating life with a disability. Many of them might have never learned about disability history or the disability community while in school. We believe it’s important for students to learn about how people with disabilities have historically been treated and to see how far we’ve come as a society and the work that still needs to be done. Connecting participants with the larger disability community shows them that they have support behind them and access to resources they might not have known about before.
We host many sessions for participants ranging from disability history & pride, the legislative process, advocacy in relationships, assistive technology, IEP vs college, STEM, and much more. Through these sessions, participants learn more about themselves and how to become better self-advocates. They also learn about resources available to help them succeed as they transition out of high school into the next phase of their lives. We explain to participants how important it is for them to be able to ask for what they need, when they need it. Traditionally in the school setting, students are provided with the tools to help them succeed without necessarily having to ask for it themselves. As they leave high school and move onto college or the workplace, it’s important for them to understand that they will be required to speak up for what they need and get accommodations in place.
Throughout the entire YLF program, the staff are continually providing peer mentoring to the participants. We also host a mentoring session and invite working individuals with disabilities to share
their experiences with college, training, and career success. Participants get the opportunity to ask the mentors any questions they have and discuss their own personal career goals and receive advice from people with lived experience.
Who do you think the forum benefits the most?
The participants are definitely the ones who benefit the most. They learn more about themselves and feel more confident in accomplishing their goals. They gain the skills needed to advocate for themselves and their peers with disabilities. They know that their disability might make accomplishing those goals a little more challenging, but they learn how to ask for accommodations and speak up for what they need.
Our communities’ benefit on a larger scale from their participation in the program. We’re helping to equip our youth, the leaders of tomorrow, with the skills they need to be successful. Through YLF they learn more about the legislative process and how to advocate for change in their communities. It’s important for us to continue to build communities where the voices of people with disabilities are at the table and valued.
What do you like most about participating?
I think the most amazing thing about YLF is seeing the students come in on the first day, most of them shy and still in their shell, and by the time they leave they’re more confident in who they are, they have pride in their disabilities, and they’ve made connections with other students and adults with disabilities that they can rely on for support as they transition into their next journey. It means so much to me to be able to share my personal experience of navigating life with a disability and helping them to realize that having a disability isn’t a bad thing. While having a disability might mean that sometimes you have to do things a little differently than others, it doesn’t mean that you still can’t accomplish your goals and live a life you love. YLF has been the most rewarding volunteer experience of my life and I like to think that it’s a life-changing experience for those who have the opportunity to patriciate.
Do you have anything else you want to share in regards to the MD-YLF?
YLF is hosted through Independence Now, which is the Center for Independent Living that serves Montgomery and Prince George’s County. The program is open to students with disabilities throughout the state of Maryland in their last two years of high school. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis, with the program being hosted annually in June. Any questions can be directed to Damon Walker, YLF Coordinator, at 240-898-2189 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re interested in participating in this exciting and educational training program which includes the opportunity to meet with Maryland leaders with or without disabilities, participate in legislative activity in Annapolis, build new skills for the future, experience a college campus and make new friends, go to Independence Now or http://www.innow.org/ylf.html.