I had the honor of speaking at a youth conference hosted and led by young people involved with “I’m Determined” in the state of Virginia (www.Imdetermined.org). I knew the focus of the work and leadership development was on young people with disabilities and that “I’m Determined” is committed to ensuring that these young people develop their voices, understand their power, and achieve self-determination. The experience was incredible; the youth were amazing; the adult staff appropriately supportive without claiming too much power; I left inspired and reflective.
Yes, I met some phenomenal young people - powerful leaders - who also had disabilities. From blindness to dyslexia, from Williams Syndrome to Cerebral Palsy, from ADHD to Aspbergers, these young people redefined traditional notions of individual leadership. But, my inspiration didn’t come from any individual, but from who and how they all were together.
So, what happens when you bring 130 young people with disabilities together, many of whom had never been to such a conference, some of whom had never even separated from their parents for hours at a time? What happens when you cram these 130 young people, many in motorized chairs, a few with vision impairments and others with an array of physical walking supports and bulky contraptions into a small hotel ballroom full of tables and chairs and bags and personal items on the floor? What happens when some non-verbal, some partially verbal, and some fully verbal youth “discuss” what leadership means and how they can become better leaders? What happens when it is meal time and there is a buffet line and some do not have the physical capacity to get their food by themselves, much less carry their food back to the ballroom and then eat it? What about the young man walking in circles in the corner? What about the young woman who cannot tolerate the sound of the lights in the room (which the rest of us could not even hear)? What happens when you turn all organizing and facilitation of all of this over to a subset of these same youth?
What sounds like a logistical impossibility was a beautiful manifestation of community, and I don’t mean “disability community”; I mean community in its ideal.
When everyone has a disability, no one has a disability. When the assumption is that everyone could use a little support, everyone offers a little support. When we understand that everyone communicates and learns differently, we listen and teach differently.
Every young person at this meeting stood ready to help someone else. So, when something was in the way of a motorized chair, someone else leaned down to get it. When someone got in line for food and couldn’t serve themselves, someone else helped them first before getting her own. When someone needed help writing, speaking, hearing, or just calming themselves in this foreign environment, another young person made it all happen. The day went off without a hitch.
If only I could be so in tune with others and they with me. I’m determined to be so.