Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Paraeducators Supporting Students with Disabilities and At-Risk

Our Experience is the Best Teacher: Self-Advocacy/AmeriCorps of New York

Author(s)

Steve Holmes is Administrative Coordinator with the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State, Schenectady.

For the past three years, the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State, Inc., a not-for-profit, statewide self-advocacy organization controlled by individuals with developmental disabilities, has sponsored an innovative project through AmeriCorps, a program of the National Service Corporation administered through the New York State Office of Volunteer and Community Service. The project, called Self-Advocacy/AmeriCorps, operates a speaker’s bureau of persons with developmental disabilities who are self-advocates and who teach others about self-advocacy “throughout our system of supports and our communities.”

Focus of SA/AmeriCorps

The mission of SA/AmeriCorps is to help contribute to the creation of a world where all individuals with disabilities can become full and valued members of their communities. Through this project, individuals with developmental and other disabilities work under the concept that, “Our experience is the best teacher.” With this in mind, teams of SA/AmeriCorps members make presentations on a number of related topics to students with and without disabilities, teachers, people with disabilities interested in self-advocacy, staff of support service agencies, and members of the general community. The purpose of these presentations is to promote the importance of self-advocacy for people with disabilities, increase general awareness of disability-related issues, and to teach about the important gifts that people with disabilities have to offer, which can only be received through full community inclusion and participation in their own communities. A key theme of AmeriCorps is “getting things done,” which emphasizes the importance of community service for all Americans. Each AmeriCorps project has a service that it conducts or supports and an outcome that relates to helping to build communities. SA/AmeriCorps’ main contribution is that it teaches the community, through presentations and volunteer community service, that no community is complete and fully vibrant unless it includes the contributions and gifts of all its members.

Organization of SA/AmeriCorps

This project is somewhat different from the typical AmeriCorps project in several key ways: 1) most of our members are part-time; 2) SA/AmeriCorps is a statewide project; and 3) by intent, the vast majority of our members are people with disabilities. AmeriCorps in general provides funding to support members to participate in community service full-time, and members receive a living allowance stipend and an education award that can be used for college and other coursework. SA/AmeriCorps receives funding to support 24 full-time members. However, because many of our members prefer part-time service, SA/AmeriCorps has supported 55 members in each of the past three years. 

SA/AmeriCorps members are divided into teams of two to four members based on interest and geographic location throughout New York. Each team and virtually each member develops an individual plan to complete personal and team activities. Most SA/AmeriCorps members participate in presentations to schools, agencies, and community organizations. Through the first three years of the project, members have made over 1,000 presentations to 25,000 people. 

The themes of the presentations vary but are based on the concept that people with disabilities, through their life stories, opinions, experiences, and knowledge have a lot to teach people. For instance, members present the list of “The Top 10 Things You Shouldn’t Do When You Support Us” :

  • Don’t think we don’t think.
  • Don’t change your tone of voice when you see us or we come into a room.
  • Don’t touch our property or move our equipment without asking.
  • Never ask someone else what we want – ask us.
  • Don’t make decisions for us.
  • Don’t have meetings about us without us.
  • Don’t talk to us in an authoritative way or with a “sing-song” tone.
  • Don’t discount our abilities.
  • Don’t think that those of us with disabilities are all the same – we’re all different, including you. 
  • Don’t patronize us.

They also present the “Top 10 Things You Should Do When You Support Us”:

  • Forget the records, get to know us as people.
  • Listen and hear our voice; we’ve got lots to say.
  • Treat us like you want to be treated – with respect and dignity.
  • Ask us how we feel about stuff.
  • Make your goal helping us accomplish ours. 
  • Take time to explain things if we don’t understand something.
  • Put yourself in our shoes – walk our walk.
  • Tell us the truth.
  • Believe in us, and our dreams.
  • Be good to yourself – we need you to be healthy and energized.

In a short time, the project has quickly caught on in New York. For example, SA/AmeriCorps teams have become a key component of the staff orientation and training of many organizations that support people with disabilities. Using personal stories and presentations of the 10 “Dos and Don’ts”, members teach staff, including direct support staff, administrators and service coordinators, the importance of listening to the people they support and understanding who really works for whom. Our experience with these presentations mirrors the experience of self-advocacy in New York and across the country: When self-advocates have an opportunity to share their stories, their hopes and their dreams, people’s attitudes change and bridges are built to community participation. Many staff of agencies who have attended the presentation report having a completely different attitude toward their work. 

Impact of SA/AmeriCorps

Thus far, the overall impact of SA/AmeriCorps has been significant on many levels. People with disabilities are seen in these presentations and their volunteer work as making a major contribution to the “system” that provides support and to their community. SA/ AmeriCorps members gain an increased sense of confidence and empowerment through these efforts and people grow in their leadership and personal capacity to advocate for themselves and others. In addition, members, some who were shy and nervous about speaking, have become great presenters and speakers and many have been asked to participate on boards and planning councils in their communities. Most have made great contacts in their communities and the organizations they visit. Many of the members speak of this experience as one of the best of their lives.

The Self-Advocacy Association of New York State has grown significantly as a result of this project. The number of presentations and the participation in community and system activities like staff training has given the organization increased visibility throughout the state and has significantly increased self-advocate opportunities for participation in regional and statewide planning councils and boards. We’ve learned a lot of lessons from this project and there have been many challenges, not the least of which is finding ways to support and accommodate people to complete their membership activities. Members, for the most part, do not travel to the same work place every day but to presentations at various community locations. Transportation, not surprisingly, has been a monumental challenge for all and especially for our many members who require accessible vehicles.

We’ve also been reminded of what we already knew, that people with disabilities are ready for the opportunities for community service and anxious to contribute and make a difference for themselves and others. The biggest obstacles are the challenges of putting together the right supports to meet their individual needs. In most ways, these are the same challenges that many people with disabilities face in trying to find meaningful work. In fact, that is one of the big challenges for members when they are finished with their terms of service – finding a good job or volunteer situation that provides a comparable level of personal satisfaction and opportunity for growth as an AmeriCorps membership.

We believe that the members of SA/AmeriCorps teach a great lesson about the importance of contribution and service to their communities. But more importantly, members teach that we should never underestimate what people can accomplish with support. The gifts and wisdom displayed by the members of SA/AmeriCorps are great example of what people can do with an opportunity.