Youth Profile in Action

“We are here, we are loud, we are disabled and proud,” are the words that youth with disabilities are cheering across the state of California. It is not just the words that have force; it is the actions that come from them.

Once ashamed of being different because of my disability, I was welcomed into the disability community with enthusiasm and encouragement through the annual California Youth Leadership Forum for Students with Disabilities (YLF). The Forum is a five day leadership program for finishing disabled high school students focusing on disability history, culture, advocacy, pride, and community. For all of us who attend, it is the first time we hear of the disability rights movement and that having a disability does not have to be a negative aspect of our lives, but rather a positive attribute to be proud of.

After I attended YLF in 2009, myself and other new and informed disability advocates joined the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers’ new youth organization Youth Organizing (Y.O.) Disabled and Proud. We brought the issues that inspired us from YLF to the table and discussed ways we could constitute change. The topic that was emphasized the most was the importance of disability history, as we all questioned why it is not taught in schools. Soon enough, with strategic planning and commitment, we formed the Disability History Week Campaign. The campaign’s goal was to spread awareness of the disability community through the educational system.

With teaching disability history in schools, we believe there will be more awareness and even acceptance of students with disabilities. Especially, in light of increased bullying, de-stigmatizing disability will only help to decrease the often harsh division that takes place amongst students who appear different. It is also for the students with disabilities to learn that they have an equal right to be an active member of society; whether that is through educational or medical rights. In order to build that bridge between all types of people, we believe that it must start with education.

Over the course of one year, Y.O. Disabled and Proud accomplished the goal of the Disability History Week Campaign: to advocate for the teaching and awareness of disability history in our local communities, writing a resolution for the California State legislature, and having it signed by the State. With astounding excitement and accomplishment, Disability History Week was proclaimed in California on July 26, 2010, to be honored during the second week of October.

Weeks prior, as I testified in front of the Health and Human Services Committee of the California State Assembly, about the importance of the resolution, I was overcome with pride and a sense of hope - that real change is possible. The power of youth advocacy was evident when the resolution, ACR162, was passed unanimously by the Assembly and Senate. California now joins the other states that have a Disability History Week: Colorado, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, Washington State, and West Virginia.

Since the proclamation, California’s youth organizers have continued to work hard on accomplishing the next step: to get Disability History in California’s public school curriculum. The advocating and relationship building between youth disability advocates and leaders within the communities across the state have continued to develop as schools are now registering to join Disability History Week through the resources of Y.O. Disabled and Proud. There has also been encouragement and success with participation of public and private institutions of higher education, state and local agencies, community and non profit organizations, and other private businesses.

Not only does Disability History Week continue to grow, Y.O. Disabled and Proud has astoundingly increased their volunteer pool and local and State wide activism. Beginning with just a few organizers, there are now over 300 Y.O. volunteers across the state. There are also other Y.O. campaigns including the “Own My Power” anti-bullying campaign and the “TA4A” Take Actions for Accommodations Campaign.

Through the hard work of California’s youth disability rights community, our voices are calling for change and our actions are creating it. Listen closely for those cheering in your community: “We are here, we are loud, we are disabled and proud!”