Helping disabled be independent

In its 8th year, youth leadership program teaches high school students to stand up for their rights

August 05, 2007|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to the Sun

Before the start of the four-day Youth Leadership Forum on Tuesday, Bernadette Tierney had to convince her 18-year-old autistic son that it was worth going. At the last minute, Christopher Rydzy backed out of staying overnight at the dormitories at Bowie State University, opting instead to attend the daytime workshops on learning how to be more independent.

The decision was not out of character for Rydzy, a senior at Arundel High School. He has trouble accepting changes in his routine.

But by Thursday morning, Rydzy was telling his mother about the legislative bill for which he and other disabled students would be lobbying - a required public school course on the disabled world's civil rights movement. By Friday morning, he was talking about returning to the program as a mentor in a few years.

"I mean, what a difference from the beginning of the week," Tierney said. "I'm floored with the transformation in just 3 1/2 days."

That kind of change is what organizers hoped to achieve at the annual forum, in its eighth year. The forum provides role models and mentors to teach disabled high school juniors and seniors how to be more independent after they graduate and how to stand up for their rights. Organizers selected 25 students statewide based on their school performance and their leadership potential.

The Maryland State Department of Education and three other state agencies sponsored the forum, which was put on by Independence Now Inc., a nonprofit center for independent living in Riverdale. The center is operated by people with disabilities.

Most students lived on campus from Tuesday through Friday, attending sessions and joining in activities, including a talent show and barbecue.

The idea for the Youth Leadership Forum came from a similar program in California in 1992. That led to the development of the National Youth Leadership Forum and programs in more than 30 states.

The Maryland Youth Leadership Forum started in 2000.

Students at the forum have a variety of disabilities, but they all struggle with the same types of issues. Among them are fitting in, being independent and standing up for themselves, said Chad E. McCruden, chairman of the Maryland forum.

"It's all about finding a common bond," he said. Although they get dozens of applications, only 25 students are selected because of limited funding, said Tanya Gilchrist, director of advocacy for Independence Now. The forum has a budget of about $60,000.

Student recruitment begins in September. Each candidate must write an essay, get three recommendations and submit to an interview.

This year, students came from 11 counties, including two from Anne Arundel County.

Patrice Ambrosser, 20, a rising senior at Meade High School, hopes to attend Bowie State University when she graduates and major in computer science.

Born with cerebral palsy, she uses a wheelchair and slurs her words, but the condition has not limited her dreams.

"You can't do anything without determination," Ambrosser said. "You have to put your best foot forward."

Ambrosser, who normally has an aide to help her, said she was excited to stay away from home in the dormitories.

An aide pushed Ambrosser's wheelchair to different tables Wednesday at the forum's technology fair, where students learned about devices that can help them be more independent. At one table, Ambrosser learned how to use the state's new touch-screen voting machine. She went outside to see a demonstration of a specially equipped vehicle with a lift for people in wheelchairs.

But Ambrosser was most interested in software that could help her at school. She was impressed by audio software that reads back the letters that are being typed on a computer. She said she finds it difficult to read what she is typing on her laptop at home.

While Ambrosser learned about technology, Rydzy took a tour of the Wiseman Center and learned about the building accommodations required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rydzy is considered to be "very high functioning," meaning that his disability is not necessarily apparent to others, especially teachers, Tierney said.

Rydzy is mainstreamed - he does not attend special-education classes - and has a 3.0 grade point average. But he often struggles to find the right words to express himself, Tierney said. He also does not look people in the eye when he speaks. Sometimes it is hard to focus, making it difficult to take tests.

To push him to become more independent, Tierney said she has gradually become less of an advocate for her son in high school.

She wanted him to apply to the forum so that he be an advocate for himself when he goes to a community college.

"Mom's not going to be there telling his professor that it would probably help if you sat him on this side of the class or gave him extra notes," Tierney said.

The forum teaches students that they can ask professors for more time to take tests, priority seating or for someone to take notes, said Chris Zang, a graduate of Bohemia Manor High School in Cecil County, an alumnus of the forum and a senior at Towson University.

Zang, who has trouble using his right arm and right leg, described himself as a "quiet student" when he attended the forum in 2003 as a high school junior.

By the end of the forum, he said, he had made friends and was able to work with the state Department of Rehabilitation Services to get financial aid for college.

"This broke me out of my shell," Zang said. "It gives you the courage to understand your rights."

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