NCWD/Youth is celebrating Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month all throughout March. Part of that celebration is sharing real stories from people in our community, people who are proud and successful in large part because of their disabilities, not in spite of them. Read Hamza’s story below.
Hello everyone! My name is Hamza Jaka, and I’m currently a junior at UC-Berkeley (and Co-president of the UC-Berkeley Disabled Student Union), studying linguistics, and generally working on human and disability rights issues in the US, Middle East, and Southeast Asia. My particular focus is on studying and promoting accessible housing and community development in Pakistan, but with the end goal of promoting accessible, affordable community based housing all over the world.
My developmental disability is Cerebral Palsy, and this not only affects my body physically, but also my ability to perceive space, and visual three-dimensional figures. I’m terrible at geometry and syntax, to tell you the truth, and navigating around cities has long since been my Achilles heel. I get lost about three to four times a day, but have had the pleasure of being lost in Washington, D.C. (figuratively and literally during my time as an intern at the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy as an AAPD intern), Pakistan, Damascus, and New York.
Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month means a lot to me, because I used to strongly deny that I had a developmental disability, instead painting my disability as a purely physical one. I did not want to be thought of as having any intellectual differences from my peers. I didn’t want to be thought of as stupid or at a lesser level than my peers. I thought like that until my exposure to the disability community in Waukesha, Wisconsin, through an integrated acting troupe that performed in Waukesha and around the state, the Adaptive Community Approach Program Players. When I was there, I met many close friends and incredible actors with developmental disabilities, including down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and Osteogenisis Imperfecta, and I realized that there was nothing wrong with having a developmental disability, and in fact, it was something that should be proud of. Without being included as a member of this group, I never would have learned to accept my disability, and make the great friends that I did.
From there, I got more involved in disability rights, working for Kids As Self Advocates (KASA), as an advisory board member. Bolstered by this experience, I went to work in Pakistan, helping schools integrate people with developmental disabilities, and helping the Pakistani Center for Independent Living outreach to youth.
To me, DD Awareness Month is a call for greater inclusion, not only in society as a whole, but in the disability community as well. America and the world have come a long way in including people with disabilities, especially with the ADA and the ADA Amendments Act, but we still have a long way to go (particularly as the U.S. and other countries around the world seek to ratify the U.N Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities). I see this a lot when I’m working with students who are applying for disability accommodations for the first time. People are often afraid to admit they need accommodations, even for small things like extra time on exams or note taking. Until that fear disappears for everyone, we still have something to fight for. And as the disability community, we need to practice what we preach, making sure to include the perspectives of everyone.
Last year, in my role as co-president of the UC-Berkeley Disabled Students Union, I noticed that our primary membership and leadership group were wheelchair users, which really wasn’t representative of the population of students with disabilities on our campus. I worked with our Disabled Students Program and our leadership team to ensure that we had a greater diversity of disabilities in our membership. After many emails and sit downs throughout the year, we had a membership of people with visible and invisible disabilities, visual impairments, and other mobility disabilities, and elected a new leadership group that was more representative of our membership. Obviously, we still work to ensure we include everyone’s voice on campus, because the more voices that we hear, the better we see issues and communicate. Inclusion improves a community, and as a community, we need to include everyone we can, and admit when we’re not being as inclusive as we should be.
Inclusion creates greater unity, adds fresh new perspective, and nurtures the next generation. Most importantly, we fight to promote greater inclusion, so we should model that idea in our own work! Never forget that everyone has something to say, and something that deserves to be heard. Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month reminds me of the wonderful diversity of disability, and serves as a reminder to include everyone.
- NCWD/Youth Innovative Strategies: to find local programs that prepare youth for the world of work
- The 411 on Disability Disclosure: A Workbook for Youth with Disabilities
- The 411 on Disability Disclosure Video Companion
- Helping Youth with Learning Disabilities Chart the Course: A Guide for Youth Service Professionals (Brief)
- AAPD Summer Internship Program
- Kids As Self Advocates (KASA)
By Hamza Jaka, Student, University of California, Berkeley