Toward a More Inclusive Definition of Diversity in the Disability Community

The following is a cross-post from the Administration for Community Living (ACL) Blog. The blog is written by Aaron Bishop, Commissioner for the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities under ACL. 

As Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month draws to a close, it is important that we take time to reflect on the values embodied within the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000. The DD Act, as it is commonly known, ensures that people with developmental disabilities in the United States and their families have access to services and supports that promote self-determination, independence, and inclusion in their communities.

The nearly 5 million Americans with developmental disabilities represent a vast diversity of backgrounds, experiences and cultures. This is why the DD Act specifically calls for the services and supports it provides to be delivered “… in a manner that is responsive to the beliefs, interpersonal styles, attitudes, language, and behaviors of individuals who are receiving the services …”

To make the DD Act’s vision a reality, AIDD is actively taking steps to increase the cultural competency of our leaders, staff, and decision makers across the developmental disability network.

Why do cultural competency and diversity matter?

The 2010 census figures vividly illustrate that racial and ethnic minority communities are growing at a much faster pace than the current majority population, white Americans. Trends in immigration and birth rates indicate that by 2050 there will be no majority racial or ethnic group in the nation. We are already seeing this in our schools; this spring, for the first time in U.S. history, more students of color will be graduating from high school than white Americans. And as ethnic diversity in the United States has increased, so too has the number of individuals with disabilities from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

People with developmental disabilities reflect the diversity of the country in many other ways as well; including in regards to gender, socio-economic status and education, just to name a few. Unfortunately, people with developmental disabilities from minority communities can face unique barriers to achieving self-determination, independence and inclusion.

For example, we know that African American and Latino boys with disabilities face school suspension and expulsion at higher rates than their peers. We also know from a project conducted by the University of Minnesota that Somali children in Minneapolis have higher rate of autism spectrum disorder than their peers, however the stigma associated with autism in the Somali community may cause families to miss out on critical early intervention opportunities.

And we know that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender young people who are living with intellectual disabilities have unique sexual health needs. Well-meaning attempts to protect gender and sexual minority youth by limiting their autonomy can inadvertently put this population at risk for a range of negative health consequences.

These sorts of complex issues can only be addressed by building a diverse workforce and weaving inclusion and cultural competency best practices into the fabric of all services provided under and outside of the DD Act.

What is AIDD is doing to increase diversity?

The first step is working to better understand the needs of the communities that we serve to ensure that our programs provide culturally competent services. For the past two years, AIDD has been working to better understand the needs of diverse populations through data collection and research.

We are funding work by the Association of University Centers on Disability (AUCD) to develop a blueprint for cultural and linguistic competence across the nation’s 67 University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. We have also developed workgroups within the Protection and Advocacy Agencies and Developmental Disability Councils to accomplish the same goal. And, most importantly, we are reaching out to the non-profit communities that serve under-represented groups to learn from and partner with them.

Second, AIDD will work to increase the cultural competency of our workforce. In 2014, for example, we funded a Leadership Institute for Cultural Diversity and Cultural and Linguistic Competence at the Georgetown University Center for Cultural Competence. The Institute will help our leaders to better understand the issues surrounding disability in diverse communities, and recruit a more diverse workforce. The Administration for Community Living has also instituted an agency-wide diversity initiative to strengthen the cultural competency of all programs that impact people with disabilities, older adults, and their caregivers.

Third, we have been working to increase diversity within our workforce. We are working with other agencies within HHS and across the federal government to look for ways to mutually benefit from pipeline grants and other initiatives to increase cultural and ethnic diversity of people working in social services fields (including people with disabilities). In 2016 and 2017, AIDD hopes to fund grants designed to encourage under-represented groups to take on leadership and advocacy roles in the disability community.

Finally, and most importantly, we are working to build the broadest possible definition of diversity in the foundations of all we do at AIDD and across ACL. Only then can we ensure that all people, regardless of age, ability or cultural background, have the opportunity to participate fully in our society—not just during Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, but every day of the year.

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When “Eat Your Vegetables” Isn’t Always An Option

Jason Farr

By Jason Farr, Program Associate, with the National Collaborative on Workforce & Disability for Youth at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development

If you are a person with a disability reading this blog, you are much more likely to be food insecure than your peers without disabilities. According to a 2013 report by the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 24.8% of people with disabilities surveyed (age 18-64) who are in the workforce are food insecure and, for individuals who identified as having a disability that keeps them out of the workforce, 33.5% were food insecure. This compares to 12% for those without disabilities between 18 and 64 who are in or out of the workforce. The USDA defines food insecure households as those that lack adequate food for one or more household members because they have insufficient money or other resources for food. While attempting to answer the question as to why this is the case is beyond the scope of this blog, the USDA report offers two possible explanations: (1) reduced earnings and (2) increased expenses related to having disabilities (medical bills, assistive technologies, personal assistants, etc.). Another important reason might be related to difficulty accessing transportation to places that sell healthy and affordable foods, among other possible causes.

The underlying problem here is one of income inequality often resulting from inadequate employment and transition supports (or awareness of supports available) to improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities, but there are federal assistance programs and similar nongovernmental programs that aim to level the playing field. Programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) are for people with disabilities that are intended to compensate for lower incomes and higher expenses. Whether or not these programs provide adequate assistance is a much larger topic for another time, but it is clear that more can be done. Fortunately, there are additional resources available.

Many individuals with and without disabilities receive nutrition assistance from various federal programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). In fact, SNAP gives special consideration for households with individuals with disabilities. For those families, any out-of-pocket medical expenses over $35 per month can be deducted from their household income when determining their eligibility for benefits. Beyond supplying financial assistance for purchasing food, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) operates the SNAP Employment and Training program (SNAP E&T) for SNAP participants to help them gain the skills necessary to obtain and retain employment, with the aim of becoming financially independent. Earlier this month, FNS announced 10 states selected as pilot programs that will test whether SNAP E&T could more effectively connect unemployed and underemployed recipients to work. For more information, the National Skills Coalition provides a number of resources on this program and the pilot sites.

Community Foodworks LogoIf you receive these nutrition benefits, there may be some additional ways to stretch that dollar for healthy food. Many farmers markets around the country have created programs that double the value of these benefits, making it easier for families with lower incomes to purchase healthy, locally grown produce. For example, I sit on the board of a nonprofit here in Washington, DC called Community Foodworks which operates the Columbia Heights Farmers Market, and last season we raised and distributed over $20,000 to families who receive WIC, SNAP, and Senior Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) benefits to be used directly with vendors at the market. This was possible with support from an organization called Wholesome Wave, which helps fund many of these programs around the country, as well as through support from local businesses and other members of the community. Community Foodworks will be piloting another program in 2015 that could serve as an example in how to address the issue of transportation faced by individuals with disabilities in accessing healthy food. Community Foodworks will be launching a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that will provide a number of subsidized shares for families living in local low income housing developments. These families, including many seniors with disabilities, will pay 1/3 the market price for a box of local produce delivered weekly to their building, thereby providing access to individuals who may have difficulty getting to the market.

Close-up of vegetables. Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

In 2014, the DC government took some of this work on themselves with the creation of the Produce Plus program. Through this program, DC residents who participate in SNAP, WIC, TANF, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), Medicaid, or SSI were eligible to receive $10 once per day per market visit. While similar programs exist in other cities, DC is the first to extend these funds to individuals beyond those that just receive SNAP. In the 2014 season, over $165,000 was distributed to DC residents to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at DC farmers markets. And while the official start date is not yet available, this program will continue in 2015.

While increasing access to fresh food at farmers markets is only one step toward improving food security for people with disabilities, it is an option many can take advantage of this year. If your local farmers markets do not operate programs like this, you can encourage them to start. If your local government does not operate a program like Produce Plus, you may consider advocating for them to do so.

Taking advantage of these farmers market programs if they are available to you offers a great way to access healthy, fresh foods that are locally produced, allowing you to eat healthy while supporting the health of your local economy. For help finding a farmers market near you check out the USDA directory here:

Related Resources:


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Transforming How Youth See Their Communities, and Themselves

Headshot: Byron Kline


By Byron Kline, Project Manager for the Right Turn Career-Focused Transition Initiative at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development.

 “…But now I learned to earn ‘cause I’m righteous / I feel great so maybe I might just / search for a 9 to 5 / If I strive then maybe I’ll stay alive…” excerpted lyrics from the song “Paid In Full” (1987) by Eric B. and Rakim

As Americans, we are told that if we just work hard and steer clear of criminal behavior, we can achieve the American dream. But the wages for hard work are not equal for everyone. Similar behavior that veers too close to criminal activity can have tragically different consequences for different people. Being found intoxicated and waving a rifle can remarkably end with nobody getting hurt and no charges being filed. On the other hand, allegedly selling loosies in front of a corner bodega can result in death.    

As US citizens we should share a collective concern about the recent events on Staten Island and in Ferguson where overreach on the part of law enforcement is in question. Yet, we cannot ignore the crime that occurs daily in our own communities, perpetrated by us, against us. In either case, too often ‘concern’ devolves into blame-gaming and demands for public apologies, rather than something more substantive. Accountability and forgiveness have a place in our society and in the criminal justice system, for sure. But restorative justice – the concept of rehabilitation through community reconciliation – should be focused on repairing harm and rebuilding relationships in communities damaged by crime, rather than general appeals for more justice. 

Restorative justice is more than just an acknowledgement of a wrong doing; it is a call to action.  It is in that vein – the need for action – that IEL’s Right Turn Career-Focused Transition Initiative takes a career-focused approach to restorative justice by engaging youth in activities and programming that prepare them for workforce success. The concept is simple: create activities that allow youth to give back to the communities they may have harmed through criminal activity, provide space in those activities for learning specific career skills to occur, and you will increase public safety by transforming how the communities view those youth and how those youth now see themselves.  Recently, Right Turn staff from across the country gathered at the Right Turn – Louisville site for the 2015 Right Turn annual meeting and took part in an interactive restorative justice peer sharing exercise where staff collectively got to hear directly from juvenile justice-involved youth about the kinds of activities and projects that make for meaningful restorative justice experiences.

 “[W]e believe those closest to the problem are closest to the solution” excerpt from Leading With Conviction: JustLeadershipUSA by Glenn Martin and Sasha Graham

For this exercise the plan was to divide staff into 4 teams and match them randomly with Right Turn youth participants.  Knowing how difficult it is sometimes to get youth to show up, we planned and hoped for at least four youth from the host site to take part in the exercise.  We ended up with 12, a few even came with their mentors – a testament to the importance young people place on giving back to their communities and to the genuine relationships Louisville’s staff have forged with their youth.  Each youth talked at length about their personal experiences working on restorative justice projects at the Louisville site; they talked about what they liked, what they didn’t like, what could have made the experience better, and how they planned to go about recruiting other youth for future projects. 

Group of Right Turn youth engaging in restorative justice activity
To the casual observer, the setting was chaotic – more youth than expected, energetic, animated and passionate, all crammed into a small meeting space, all talking at once. On closer inspection though, the conversations between staff and youth provided a range of candid and powerful insights into what the youth thought of their communities, and of themselves. Their responses boiled down to three distinct themes: first, the youth’s attitudes toward serving their communities were very positive; giving back was seen as a natural and necessary part of living where they live. Second, the “youth offender” label generated very negative feelings; they resented having the sum of their lives and self-worth reduced down to an offense.  Lastly, the youth emphasized the value of being involved from the start of a project, during the planning stages where their ideas can have the most impact and help shape an activity.  As each team reported out on their discussions, one young man posed the question rhetorically, “…why don’t [they] see me as someone who can help?” Once again, those closest to the problem – in this case, juvenile crime – are often closest to the solution – increased public safety.

The exercise was a big hit with both Right Turn staff and Louisville’s Right Turn youth.  In addition to the themes the discussions revealed, the youth’s responses affirm the impact of exposing youth to personal leadership and youth development activities to help them gain skills.  It was no coincidence that the youth that indicated getting the most from their restorative justice experiences were the same youth that, during the exercise, were the most vocal and engaging, displaying the greatest interpersonal skillset both with staff and their fellow Right Turn participants.    

Group picture of youth from Right Turn meeting

No juvenile justice initiative can absolve a young person’s responsibility or guilt for having committed a crime, or completely eliminate the lingering suspicion and skepticism community folk often retain long after the crime incident – or even after an attempt to make amends through a restorative justice project. 

But it’s a start.

The same way Ferguson is seen by many as a call to action for greater police accountability, restorative justice is call for greater accountability among community members when it comes to addressing juvenile crime and supporting our youth. That said, what youth gain from taking part in Right Turn restorative justice projects is a chance to learn and practice work skills and soft skills that will not only improve their prospects for finding and retaining employment, but will also promote individual activism and advocacy in their communities.  To put it another way, the positive work competencies (i.e., the capacity to learn, work ethic, interpersonal skills, teamwork, and community civic-mindedness) we have come to expect from today’s college kids that take part in community service projects before entering the workforce, is the same work attitude and conviction captured in Rakim’s iconic “learn to earn… so I can search for a 9 to 5” verse, and the same skills and values quality restorative justice programming provide our youth involved in the juvenile justice system.          

 Related Resources:

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Professional Development that Works: DC Workforce Professionals Find Value in New Learning Community  

By Julie Jean Louis, intern at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development

Youth Workforce Leaders Academy LogoWith little money and even less spare time, organizations and systems often struggle to carve out the resources and leap the logistical hurdles to offer formal professional development for their youth service professionals. In addition, youth service professionals work directly with youth so any meeting or training means less time for what they care most about: youth! So, is professional development worth it? A recently formed learning community in Washington, DC says, “Yes!”

The Greater Washington Workforce Development Collaboration, the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL), and the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates recently convened the nation’s first Youth Workforce Leaders Academy (the Academy), a 10-month long professional development opportunity. Supported by the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, this learning community supports the growth and success of staff from Washington, DC based organizations that provide workforce development services to youth ages 16-24, including youth with disabilities. Through monthly live learning sessions, expert led webinars, web-based topical discussions, individual professional development activities, and facilitated peer-to-peer learning; the Academy aims to expand and grow participants’ expertise in providing high quality youth workforce development services. The Fall 2014 cadre recently completed a mid-point evaluation survey and shared overwhelmingly positive feedback about the benefits received from this professional development opportunity.

Participants were asked to complete a brief evaluation of the Academy’s first half. The mid-point evaluation asked participants for feedback about five areas: Benefits, Improvements, Networking, Resources, and Wish List. The mid-point evaluation responses revealed that the Academy has been valuable and relevant to the work of the participants. As one participant shared,

“I have found the following incredibly helpful: other perspectives/best practices shared by my colleagues/fellow cadre members, presentations by guest speakers, and the wealth of materials and information passed to everyone before, during, and after each session.” 

Three participants sit in Academy trainingThe most common benefits cited by the participants were the strategies and tools that they could take back to share with colleagues and use in their own work with youth. Some of these tools and strategies include: active listening tips, individualized learning plans, soft skills materials, universal design strategies, disability disclosure for youth, and integrating multiple learning styles into workforce development settings. It was exciting to hear that not only did participants enjoy the time in the trainings, but that they went back and used what they learned to improve the experience, opportunities, and outcomes for youth! Participants also talked about sharing the materials with others, including: a training for foster parents, activities with youth and parents, tips for instructors,  a training and webinar with mentors/volunteers, workforce readiness workshops, and discussions with colleagues and their supervisors.

In addition to hands-on strategies and tools, participants also enjoyed the opportunity to have “good supportive discussions and networking.” Participants enjoyed meeting people from other organizations and “hearing how different organizations are navigating issues with youth”. During each session, there is designated time for peer-led discussions of participants’ successes and challenges related to that month’s topic area, as well as how they are planning to use the tools and materials provided. “Sharing about our organizations and the work we do allows for this kind of interaction [networking] and follow-up conversations. I think group brainstorming and activities has helped facilitate this [networking] as well,” shared one participant. Often the best learning comes from others who are on the ground doing the same work as your organization – creating forums for these networking exchanges is a key strategy for inexpensive yet effective professional development.

Finally, Puzzle pieces showing network of systems when asked what improvements they wanted or what would be on their wish list for upcoming sessions, participants asked for more, more, more! Longer sessions, more materials (on employer engagement, program design, and working with families) and additional networking opportunities (keeping the room open after sessions, events with additional colleagues included, and structured networking activities).  The Academy session topic areas and materials were based on NCWD/Youth’s Youth Service Professionals’ Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (YSP/KSA) professional development initiative. As part of the national YSP/KSA professional development initiative, NCWD/Youth and its partners identified 10 competency areas for youth service professionals providing all youth, including those with disabilities, opportunities for career exploration, continued learning, and independent living. The YSP/KSA 8 training modules were developed to provide youth service professionals with strategies and tools to strengthen their work with all youth, including youth with disabilities in the workforce system.

Professional development reaps many benefits, not only for the individual and the organization, but also for the many youth who interact with them each day. We want to effectively engage youth by providing all youth, including youth with disabilities, the highest quality programs and opportunities possible. Investing in the ongoing development of youth service professionals brings us one step closer to this goal. Based on the positive feedback of this professional development model and the requests for even more, the partners in the DC Youth Workforce Leaders Academy are actively exploring ways to stay engaged with the current cadre of the DC Youth Workforce Leaders Academy beyond their May graduation, as well as offer an additional session in Fall 2015. If you are interested in learning more about this model or starting a Youth Workforce Leaders Academy in your local area, please contact us at

Related Resources:


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The Interview that Changed My Life Forever

The following is a cross-post from the U.S. Department of Labor Blog. The blog is written by Tiffany Jolliff a past participant in the Workforce Recruitment Program.

On a crisp fall day in 2011, I donned my best professional outfit, harnessed up my guide dog Railey, and headed off for another day of college classes. I had a special appointment between management economics and business finance classes. The campus Disability Support Services office, a designated Workforce Recruitment Program site, had a federal representative making a visit and I was scheduled for an interview.

Armed with my resume, and the hopes and dreams of every graduating senior, I stepped into the office. I met with a woman named Laura, who looked at my resume and asked questions about my scholastics and work experience. She wanted to know which U.S. cities I would consider moving to for employment. Interviewees were allowed to select up to five cities, and four of mine were safe choices (close by). As a young woman with a significant disability, I was hesitant to stray too far from home. Believing the probability of getting a job offer in Washington, D.C., was slim, I selected it as my fifth choice.

Laura explained that my skills, resume and location preferences would be entered into the Workforce Recruitment Program database and would be made available to federal agencies and private sector employers. If my skills matched the needs of employers looking at the database, I could be called for an interview. I thanked Laura and headed off to finish the last two months of my undergraduate studies.

By April of 2012, I was getting discouraged. Job interviews had come and gone, and I was still sitting on my parents’ couch scouring the Internet for job openings. Then, a call from the Labor Department’sOffice of Disability Employment Policy changed everything. They saw my resume in the WRP database and were looking for a summer intern. Would I be interested in moving from Bloomington, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., next month? Now the opportunity was here, and it was BIG – could I really move 750 miles away from everything I had ever known? There would be new routes to learn, no family to help me and a metro system to navigate. Washington is a big city and I am blind.

After many sleepless nights and lots of in-depth discussions with my supportive yet hesitant parents, Railey and I relocated over Memorial Day Weekend of 2012.

My internship led to a full-time position with a nonprofit organization for two years, admission to graduate school where I am pursuing a master’s degree, and a return to ODEP as a full-time employee. I took a huge leap during that October interview and never ever looked back. Today, my outlook on life is great, and I have the Workforce Recruitment Program to thank.

Tiffany Jolliff is a program specialist in the department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.

Editor’s note: If you are a college student with a disability who is looking for another source for employment, talk to your DSS office about the Workforce Recruitment Program today. If your campus is involved, learn how to get your information into the database. And, if your campus has not yet signed up to participate in the program, talk to your DSS office about registering — it‘s easy! to get started.

Employers can also benefit from the WRP by finding interns and permanent employees from the pre-screened and qualified students in the database. Federal employers can search the database at Private-sector employers can go to where they can post positions to which WRP students and recent graduates can respond.

For information on navigating the job search process, check out ODEP’s video series featuring young professionals with real-life experiences. To search for federal positions, visit


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What I Want for Black History Month

Headshot: Jennifer Thomas

By Jennifer Thomas, Youth Development Specialist with the National Collaborative on Workforce & Disability for Youth at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development.


African-American firsts and those noted for making a difference in history are celebrated during Black History Month. I am so proud of this heritage; however, I did not always feel that same sense of pride as a member of the disability community. This disconnect wasn’t felt because I was ashamed of having a disability, at least not after my early teen years. Instead, it was because I never learned about African-Americans who had contributed to the Disability Rights Movement, unless you count the stories I would hear during National Disability Employment Awareness Month about Black Panthers bringing food to protestors during the 1977 historic sit-in in San Francisco around the signing of the Section 504 regulations.

Brad Lomax, his brother Glenn

Advocate Brad Lomax and his brother Glenn (photo courtesy of

Additionally, I never saw any African-Americans in the disability history section of school history books. Yes, in middle and high school my schools’ history books had a tiny section on disability history, usually a paragraph. Sure the Black history or African-American history sections noted Black people with disabilities who were firsts or who did great things, such as Harriet Tubman or Stevie Wonder, but Blacks noted for involvement in the Disability Rights Movement were never mentioned. I feel strongly that all contributions to the Disability Rights Movement need to be documented so that all people with disabilities understand that there is a place for them in the Disability Rights Movement, and there is a place for the movement in their culture.

In order to ensure that no one’s story is omitted, those of us who are involved in the Disability Rights Movement have to be certain that we are encouraging diversity and sharing opportunities to include stories of disability advocacy and leadership with everyone. It is also important that our various forms of media and advertisement show just as much respect for and interest in the cultures represented by the potential audience as well as the different disabilities.

Getting involved in projects seeking stories from people who were involved in the Disability Rights Movement is another way to make sure diverse stories are captured in disability history. There are projects that you can get involved in if you, or someone you know is interested in sharing your story about disability advocacy. Patient No More! People With Disabilities Securing Civil Rights is a project based in California that is seeking stories and memorabilia of people who participated in the 1977 sit-in in San Francisco. The Disability Visibility Project is a partnership with StoryCorps to record and preserve diverse voices of the disability community. It’s Our Story is a digital archive of stories from disabled activists across the United States.

Ever Lee Hairston

Ever Lee Hairston (photo courtesy of

I always wondered where the images of Black people and other people of color were during recounts of the Disability Rights Movement. No disrespect to Mr. Wonder or Ms. Tubman, but I hear their stories and stories like theirs every time February comes around. As an African-American woman who has a disability, during Black History Month, I would like to hear the stories of Ever Lee Hairston; Bradley Lomax; and Margaret Irvine, Bruce Oka, and Jane Johnson (Minorities Panel members during the 1977 Federal Building sit-in in San Francisco), as well as the stories of young people in the movement, in addition to the other great stories I typically hear. I refuse to believe that the Black panthers who brought food to protestors during the Disability Rights Movement were the only Black people involved in fighting for the rights of disabled people. Hopefully during Black History Month, and quite frankly throughout the year, we will continue to hear the stories of all folks involved in the Disability Rights Movement so that each of us will recognize that we have a place in the movement, and the movement has a place in our cultures.                

Related Resources: 



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Wale Shares “Ambition” with Adjudicated RAMP Youth

The following is a guest blog by Demetrius Brown, a Coordinator with the Ready to Achieve Mentoring Program (RAMP) in Washington, DC. RAMP-DC partners with the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and enrolls adjudicated youth at New Beginnings Youth Development Center (New Beginnings) six months prior to release and continues working with them for six months after they return to their communities. Youth participate in weekly career preparation-focused group meetings, including peer-supported goal-setting and exploration of careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) while in New Beginnings. RAMP-DC is funded by the US Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. RAMP is based on a variety of foundational materials developed by NCWD/Youth including the Guideposts for Success and Paving the Way to Work: A Guide to Career-Focused Mentoring for Youth with Disabilities.

By Demetrius Brown

On November 21, 2014, the RAMP youth got a special treat before the holidays. In collaboration with New Beginnings, the Progressive Life Center RAMP Coordinator, and RAMP mentor Keith ‘Wali’ Johnson, we were able to bring national recording rap artist and local celebrity, Wale, from MMG music group, to speak to the youth at New Beginnings Youth Development Center.

Wale with RAMP Coordinator Demetrius Brown

Wale, who was born and raised in the metropolitan DC area, wanted an opportunity to give back to the youth who have been through the adjudication system. Wale, a product of the juvenile justice system himself, spoke with the youth to give them words of encouragement and advice on how to succeed in the many fields that exist within the recording industry, and about making better choices in life. With a great number of RAMP youth interested in careers in the performance arts, Wale encouraged them to continue building and working on their craft, all while not getting discouraged based on the current situation they’re in. Wale expressed the importance of perseverance and surrounding yourself with like-minded people. Something that stuck with a number of the youth was when Wale said, “Don’t hang around dudes that don’t have nothing going on with their lives. Start hanging around positive people that have the same interest and build on your craft. Keep writing; keep producing; keep rapping.”

One youth, whose career goal is to become a respected rapper shared, “Wale just gave me a lil bit more hope about making it out of D.C. I‘m going to take his advice on writing every day, cause it’s going to help me form songs better.”

Opportunities like this, are extremely motivating to the youth population at New Beginnings. We have a unique group of young people that require individualized attention not only from our community support workers, but from established professionals as well. These events give youth a chance to think on a larger scale, set career and other transition-oriented goals, and fulfill them, one step at a time.

Related Resources:

Posted in Career Exploration, Career Preparation, Communicating with Youth, Community Partnerships, Events, Guideposts for Success, Juvenile Justice, Mentoring, Positive Peer Influence, Transition | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

There Is No “I” in “Teach”

The following is a crosspost from Blend My Learning. The blog is written by Kristin Fiorini, a first and second grade Special Education teacher at Wheatley Education Campus in Washington, DC and a 2014 City Bridge-New Schools Education Innovation Fellow.

This sumKristin Fiorini Headshotmer, I had the opportunity to pilot a personalized learning model with a group of students. I am not your typical general education teacher with a classroom of 22 to 28 students who are at all different levels and are working towards a set of grade level standards. Instead, my job as a special education teacher is to carry out the “Individualized Education Plans” (IEP) that come with my students. My caseload normally ranges from 10-15 students at various grade levels who also work with multiple teachers in other classrooms.

Prior to completing my summer pilot, through CityBridge Foundation’s 2014 Education Innovation Fellowship, I had the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, and Detroit to observe and learn about personalized learning practices in schools in those cities. In every school we visited, the general education teacher was leading the way, using innovative personalized learning models in the classrooms. When I asked about the role of a special education teacher within these models, it seemed clear that special education instruction was still separate and designed according to a student’s IEP.

As I thought about what I saw in the classrooms we visited during our travels, I wondered how I could incorporate innovation into my classroom instruction while still executing against each of my students’ individualized learning plans. The online content that was used in the classes we saw — Lexia, i-Ready, and ST Math — met the needs of the students with disabilities within the learning targets set for them. And they still got direct instruction in small groups with general education teachers. It was like differentiation on steroids!

Still a bit unsure about the role of a special education teacher in personalized learning, I launched a pilot this past summer using a station rotation model that had three rotations: independent work, teacher time, and online content. The online content I used was Ramps to Reading, which helped develop the cognitive skills that go along with becoming a reader. It was engaging. My students loved it, and I was able to meet the very specific needs of my students who varied greatly in their abilities.

In my summer school session, I had students who were non-verbal along with students who were on the verge of breaking through to grade level skills. Two boys in my class, who were nonverbal, were more challenging and required constant attention and teacher support. Having the station rotation model in my classroom ensured I could give those boys the necessary amount of direct teacher instruction they needed, knowing that the my students with a greater ability to work independently were still engaged in the academic learning they needed.

The next challenge was making this work for my students and my classroom peers in new coming school year. How could I show that personalized learning practices could meet the needs of every student in a class, not just my students with disabilities? How could I get my peers,—any or all of the four general education teachers I work with—to adopt this station rotation model?

All of these questions continue to come up as I work to define my role as a special education teacher and figure out how I can bring innovative ideas into the classroom for my students. I know that there is no “I” in teaching. I cannot make this innovation happen alone. What I have come to understand is that personalized learning can bridge the gap between the work of general education teachers and the work of special educators.

The school year is still new, and I look forward to continuing this journey and teaming up with my colleagues to implement a personalized learning experience for all students. Together, we will create innovative experiences that meet the needs of all students. I hope you will stay tuned to see how our teamwork will make the dream work!

An individualized learning plan (ILP) is both a document and a process that students use – with support from school counselors, teachers, and parents – to define their career goals and postsecondary plans in order to inform the student’s decisions about their courses and activities throughout high school. Many states have adopted policies that require all middle and/or high school students to develop and maintain an individualized learning plan in order to make schools more personalized and improve student outcomes.

Over the last few years, NCWD/Youth and partners have launched a multi-year individualized learning plan research and demonstration project funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy. The research findings have resulted in many of the below related resources.

Related Resources:

Posted in Career Exploration, Career Preparation, Education, IEP, Individualized Learning Plan, Innovative Strategies, Policy, Research, Transition | Comments Off

Mentoring Stories: Damon & Shamond

During October, organizations all around the country celebrated the annual Disability Mentoring Day event. NCWD/Youth is fortunate to be able to engage in mentoring programming all year round through the Ready to Achieve Mentoring Program (RAMP) run by our host organization, the Institute for Educational Leadership. RAMP is based on several of NCWD/Youth’s foundational materials including the Guideposts for Success and Paving the Way to Work: A Guide to Career Focused Mentoring for Youth with Disabilities. The following is a story about the mentor-mentee experience with Damon (Mentor) and Shamond (Mentee) from RAMP Houston.

Damon and Shamond Smiling Together

How and why did you get involved with RAMP?

Damon: I found RAMP on a community website I have previously volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters and I wanted a new community service endeavor. I also wanted to work with an older youth population.

Shamond: I got involved in RAMP to learn about finding a job. I needed help with interview skills, job searching and how to dress.

What are your career goals or career interests?

Shamond: I am a student athlete. I love sports and fitness. I would like to be an athletic coach. My father is a welder and I’m thinking about that too.

What were you expecting from RAMP before becoming a mentee/mentor? Has RAMP met or exceeded your expectations?

Damon: I did not expect that I would be able to as involved as I have become. I get to help with the learning activities, field trips and academics. My mentee welcomes me to his sporting events and the school faculty is very inviting. My expectation was exceeded. I have a large role in Shamond’s life but I still have my distance and balance as needed.

Shamond: I expected that RAMP would answer all my questions about school and working. I like RAMP and the time we spend together.

What do you like most about the relationship?

Shamond: I like that we have fun and games! Even with being cool we still have to learn.

Damon: I like that you are receptive to my ideas and advice. I like that I can easily get in touch with you and that you invite me to your football games. You are very affectionate and we never have fights or major misunderstandings.

What is one of our most memorable moments together? Why?

Shamond: I liked when we went to Olive Garden last year. We laughed, played around, learned and ate good food. We took that happy picture that was put on Easter Seals website.

Damon: Other than Olive Garden, my most memorable moment was when I attended your first football game. You lit up when you saw me on the field. I was proud to be there for you and you were proud that I kept my promise and came.

What would say to someone to convince them to become a mentee/mentor for RAMP?

Damon: I would tell community volunteers how rewarding it is to be a mentor. You have flexibility in scheduling and the amount of effort you have to put in. I choose to go to the school every week and see Shamond outside of the school, if your schedule does not accommodate this, that’s ok too.

Shamond: I would tell a student that being in RAMP will teach life lessons. You will learn how to interview, get and keep a job.

How would you like our relationship to grow in the future?

Damon: Shamond and I have a very healthy relationship. We have a good time together and we have a mutual understanding. Going forward as he matures into a young adult, I would like to learn more about his likes, dislikes, and internal struggles that he does not verbalize.

Shamond: Stay cool with each other. Give me advice from time to time to keep me going on the right path.

What are some of the goals that have been set since being involved with RAMP to help you with your career path?

Shamond: Keep good grades and get ready for graduation. Keep my body healthy and study fitness.

What changes have you recognized in your mentee since the early stages of the relationship?

Damon: Shamond went from being a class nuissance to a respectable young man. In the beginning Shamond would be put out of every class I attended, and showed gross disrespect for others or authority. Now Shamond is a leader on his football with both character and grades. Shamond also knows compassion now and can see the misdeeds of others.

What is the most interesting thing about your mentee/mentor?

Damon: Shamond is a talented athlete. Shamond has a shoe fetish!  Shamond has a caring spirit and has learned patience and the rewards it brings.

Shamond: Damon makes me smile and laugh. He teaches and shows me what I need to do, and I get it done.

Related Resources:


Posted in Career Exploration, Career Preparation, Communicating with Youth, Disclosure, Guideposts for Success, Mentoring, Positive Peer Influence, Soft Skills, Transition, Youth Development, Youth Leadership | Comments Off

The School-to-Prison Pipeline for Children of Color with Disabilities: Diversifying the Fight

Do The Right Thing Movie Poster (From year marks the 25th Anniversary of Spike Lee’s iconic film, Do the Right Thing.  I recently watched it on cable for what seems like the hundredth time.  One of my favorite scenes is when the character Buggin’ Out (played by Giancarlo Esposito) is eating a slice in his neighborhood pizzeria, in his predominantly African-American Brooklyn community, and challenges the Italian owner Sal (played by Danny Aiello) with the question that would set the stage for the movie’s pivotal moment:

“Hey Sal, how come you don’t got no brothers on the wall here?” 

The question expresses Buggin’ Out’s resentment at not seeing photos of any black or brown people – “people” that looked like himself – on the Wall-Of-Fame in Sal’s shop that he regularly patronizes.  Tension builds, heated words are exchanged, drama ensues – end scene.

The films depiction of this incident speaks to our need to feel included; our desire to see ourselves reflected in and represented by those institutions that share space in our communities.  And, the animosity that can build when we don’t see anyone that looks like us – our identifying group – on that institution’s proverbial wall, or at the discussion table in the board room, or at the workplace, or in the classroom, etc.

Similarly, the issue of ethnicity came up at last month’s National Council on Disability / Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund’s meeting focusing on the School-to-Prison Pipeline for Children of Color with Disabilities.  In particular, the discussions centered on the overuse of the “10 Day Rule” discipline provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which permits schools to remove a student with a disability from school for up to 10 days – providing an all too convenient justification for getting rid of students with disabilities without an assessment (i.e., IEP team meeting, behavioral intervention plan, functional behavioral assessment) or any other service or support.  To put it another way, the 10 Day Rule constructively harms the very students the IDEA was intended to help.  Unsurprisingly, the Rule tends to disproportionately impact children of color.

Which is why the issue of ethnicity is so ironic in this instance because while Latinos make up one of the fastest growing populations in the country, and are disproportionately overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, there was apparently only one Latino person in attendance at the meeting.  And it was that lone Latino who made a point of posing the rhetorical question out loud to the group, in true “Do the Right-Thing”-esque fashion, “why are there no other Latinos in the room”?  Furthermore, young people – as in high school age youth – were another key group noticeably absent from the event as someone else quickly pointed out.  And while the temperature of the room remained congenial rather than accusatory (no garbage cans were thrown as in the movie) the passionate discourse that followed concerning the lack of Latinos and missing youth voice at this otherwise diverse meeting, was powerfully candid.  In other words, the conversation turned very real!

“Nothing About Us, Without Us” 

Diversity, or the lack of, is something we all like to think we are adequately sensitive to.  I know what it’s like to be in a professional setting and be the only African American in the room.  I recognize how important it is to have the active involvement of other people of color in the planning of strategies and policies that affect our lives.  Having worked in the adult and juvenile reentry worlds, I understand why it’s critical to have input from formerly incarcerated people when the subject is criminal justice policy reform.  I also get how absurd it would have been to not have people from the disability community well represented at this meeting.  Yet, in all my ‘sensitivity’ I failed to immediately recognize and address the elephant in the room – that, youth and Latinos were almost entirely absent, adding particular irony to any discussion about school discipline for children of color, let alone those youth with disabilities.

This is not an indictment of the efforts to assemble a diverse audience.  On the contrary, many of the guests – present company included – acknowledged that this meeting was one of the most racially diverse gatherings they had ever attended on the subject of disability.  But diversity is more than race, and diversity is not the same as inclusion.  And when it comes to inclusion, we are all complicit when we fail or even inadvertently neglect to recognize the voices that are missing from the conversation.  Part of our due diligence as practitioners fighting for juvenile justice reform and disability rights is to make sure that whenever we sit down to formulate policy recommendations, the following questions are always asked:  “who” else needs to be involved in the discussion; “why” are they not here; and “what” needs to be done to get and keep them involved.  There is no moral victory in merely being more diverse or inclusive than in years past.  Broader diversity and inclusion along a range of individual variables (i.e., types of disabilities, ethnic background, gender, age, etc.) is the necessary precursor to any meaningful progress for students with disabilities.  More importantly, the issues surrounding race, ethnicity and disability are often inseparable as the stigma and discrimination that correlate with any one of these designations is palpable by itself.  When you combine racial and disability discrimination together, the results are devastating for school children as multiple school suspensions reduce the chances of graduation from high school and increase their chances of incarceration.

Given the disproportionate number of youth with disabilities caught in the juvenile justice system, it is important to identify specific interventions that address their many needs for successful transition.  The National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth’s Making the Right Turn:  A Guide About Improving Transition Outcomes for Youth Involved in the Juvenile Corrections System highlights experiences, supports and services that all youth need, and distinguishes the particular needs of youth in the juvenile justice system.  IEL’s Right Turn Career-Focused Transition Initiative (Right Turn) is based on the Guide along with other IEL-created foundational materials, and is currently being implemented across the country in five communities.

Understanding, implementing and ensuring greater diversity and youth voice along the adult-youth partnership spectrum expresses the conviction of people with disabilities, and people of color, and people of different ethnicities, and formerly incarcerated people, etc., that they all have particular insight into what is best for them and are ultimately the agents of their own progress.  That said, it’s important to also realize that diversity and inclusion are ongoing journeys rather than finite destinations.  As leaders in the juvenile justice reform and disability rights movements attempting to curb the School to Prison Pipeline, we must always be mindful to ensure that our brothers (and sisters) “on the wall” are present and part of every conversation that affects them.

By Byron Kline, Project Manager for the Right Turn Career-Focused Transition Initiative at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development

Related Resources:

Posted in Culture, Events, Guideposts for Success, Inclusion | Tagged , , | Comments Off