So, how does a retired teacher spend her summer? Well, maybe some time in summer school will feel just about right!
I had a wonderful opportunity last week to attend the Youth Leadership Forum held on a nearby college campus and designed to help teenagers with various disabilities learn about self-advocacy and leadership. My role was to support my young friend Nate (not his real name - we'll wait until he's ready to share his whole story publicly) who does not speak, but does type to communicate and does have a lot to say!
Nate and I had started typing together several years ago, but once he entered high school - and was having a successful experience there - our time together was very limited. So we spent a couple hours the week before "summer camp" getting reacquainted and brushing up on our typing rhythms. All went well and he seemed eager for the experience. I couldn't answer all the questions he asked, because I had never attended this forum and really didn't know much about what to expect. I warned him that even though he really wanted to know, I was reluctant to give answers because I could be wrong and that might cause some disappointment. I did tell him I was quite sure there would be frequent breaks and he would be allowed to take any additional breaks he might need. I thought it was safe to say there would be a variety of fun activities planned for the week. And then we tackled his most pressing concern: How would he fit in? He seemed worried that his inability to speak would be a problem, and he might not be a good match for the group. I reassured him that if he would be able to participate by typing I was very sure he would be raising the awareness level of everyone involved - which just so happens to be a major part of his personal life dream.
As it turned out, I was wrong about all those "fun" activities - they probably happened after my shift ended (usually around 3 or 4 p.m., when Nate's dad took over for the remainder of each day/night). We were essentially in a large group (about 20 participants and almost as many mentors/counselors -all of them former participants in the program) for the entire day, seated around large tables, listening to various presentations on topics such as self-advocacy, accommodations in college, living on your own, federal/state laws regarding disability, etc. Yes, there were breaks, but not as many as I had expected and usually quite short. There was lots to learn, and work to be done!
But I was oh-so-wonderfully-right about Nate's impact on the group. He amazed me by his ability to remain with the group the entire time, taking only the same breaks as everyone else, and then eagerly returning to hear more. Whenever I checked in with him by typing on his iPad to ask how he was doing, he invariably typed back that all was well and he was happy to be there. He amazed everyone else by his typed comments and questions. Every time when Nate finished his typing and I raised my hand to indicate he had something to contribute to the discussion, we had the complete attention of everyone in the room. Several of the more experienced mentors made a point of sharing with us just how impressed they were with what he had to say and what a hard worker he had been all week long.
For the most part, Nate needed prompting when a speaker finished and the group applauded their comments. He'd manage a single clap or so and that was it, but his typed comments always indicated he had been listening and really did appreciate all that was being presented. There was one instance, however, when he spontaneously clapped (several claps this time!) and even vocalized quite loudly - all on his own - and that was when a speaker asked the group if they found it offensive when others use the dreaded "R" word ("retarded" or "retard"). This entire group of amazing young people with all sorts of labels and challenges were in loud and clear agreement that this is the very worst thing they have to deal with.
I learned a lot last week - mostly a huge new respect for the young people who participated. And I know every one of them - Nate included - grew in their own knowledge and self-confidence. They will find ways to change the world around them, each in their own way. We are a better world because of them.