Geraldo Gonzalez, a Junior Partners in Policymaking program alumnus, shared his current work supported by the Creative Vision Factory in Wilmington Del.

Finding their voice

Young adults learn disability advocacy in Junior Partners program


9:34 a.m., July 10, 2013--Imagine sitting at a table as a team of professionals make decisions about your future without listening to what you want. Or being told that you cannot participate in a program that is open to other teens in your school. Nearly everyone would object to this treatment. But how do you learn to advocate for yourself or for someone you know? 

Junior Partners in Policymaking, a program that was held June 16-21 at the University of Delaware’s Clayton Hall, is aimed at helping young adults ages 15-22 — both with and without disabilities — get involved in disability advocacy at the local, state and national levels.

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During the week, participants stayed in Christiana Towers and experienced life on the UD campus.

Delaware is the only state to offer Junior Partners in Policymaking, which was developed from a national program, Partners in Policymaking.

Students were taught valuable skills such as creating an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and developing public policy. The week concluded with a tour of Legislative Hall in Dover and a discussion with State Rep. Debra Heffernan, a member of the UD Center for Disabilities Studies Community Advisory Council, during which participants had a chance to practice the advocacy skills.

According to Chris Coulston, a participant from Wilmington, Del., and a junior at Concord High School, “This program will help me in my IEP meetings and will make them more useful. It’s not about what the teachers want for me; it’s about what I want for myself.”

Participants learned to advocate for others, not just on their own behalf. Shy’Diazea Dixon, a student at Seaford High School, said, “This program taught me how to be a go-getter and how to stand up for people with disabilities and for myself.”

One of the new elements of the program was that alumni from past Junior Partners programs were featured in some of the sessions, including Geoffrey Steggell and Andrew Netta, who recently completed the UD Career and Life Studies Certificate program, and Geraldo Gonzalez, an artist whose work was featured on the CDS annual report and calendar.  

Junior Partners was directed by Megan Pell, a special education doctoral candidate at UD and a research associate at CDS. The 2013 program staff included current UD students Alyssa Fiume, human services, Anthony Monaco, cognitive science, and Grace Wesley, elementary teacher education, along with 2013 UD graduates Matthew Nesi, elementary teacher education, Amy Smith, health behavior science, and Catherine Witanowski, cognitive science. 

“One of the best aspects of the program is it allows people at all levels to participate, from beginners to more experienced,” Pell said. “It is great watching the evolution of the participants from the beginning of the week to the end, as they become an advocate, not just for themselves but for their peers.”

In fact, this was the first time away from home for Dixon. She said she was a bit nervous in the beginning, but enjoyed the trip to Legislative Hall and now plans to build on her experience and help advocate for other family members with disabilities. 

Pell gave kudos to the many units on campus that provided support to the program and participants. “It’s wonderful that UD houses this national program, providing more visibility to people with disabilities on campus,” she said. “From Conference Services to Dining Services to the Morris Library, our UD colleagues were very welcoming and flexible in helping us fulfill the program’s goals.”

About the program

Junior Partners in Policymaking, which has been offered every other year since 2005, was created by the Delaware Developmental Disabilities Council (DDDC) and is funded by the DDDC, the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, the Delaware Department of Education and the Delaware General Assembly.

Junior Partners is staffed by personnel from the Center for Disabilities Studies, a unit of the College of Education and Human Development

Article by Christina Mason Johnston

Photos by Lane McLaughlin

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