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National Service and Inclusion Project

Inclusion: The active engagement of people with disabilities as service members in all levels of national and community service

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Service and Inclusion from the Member Perspective

When discussing inclusive national and community service, it's easy for theory to overtake experience. The best lessons come directly from service members who have disabilities. With that in mind, we bring you the experiences of three service members in their own words. They discuss the successes they achieved and tips to overcome barriers.

Maureen is finishing her second year as a VISTA service learning coordinator in Seattle, where she sets up service projects at an elementary school. At the end of her term, she will study environmental science and policy in graduate school.

Kira started as an AmeriCorps member in 2001 as part of the national program Action for Children Today. For two years, she helped children with their reading and math skills before they went to kindergarten. Currently she is on a team to recruit new members in North Carolina.

Emmanuel is in his second term for AmeriCorps in Delaware. He has conducted a computer lab for the boys and girls' club and run a program for kids ages 6 to 12 called "Peek Into the Future," where they learned to set and reach life goals.

Why did you decide to enroll in service?

Maureen: "I graduated from college, and I was trying to find a place where I felt comfortable gaining work experience in maybe a less competitive and more supportive environment. I felt that VISTA and national service was a good place to make that first step back into the workforce. This opportunity also allowed for me to move. I had been living in Denton, Texas, at my parents' house and was looking for a place to move out and gain my independence as well. So I was terribly insistent that I was going to move to Seattle and live in an apartment by myself. I felt like I had a lot of things to prove to myself. Again, VISTA program seemed like a good place to do that. And working in an elementary school matched my background. I'd been doing environmental education. It seemed like a good fit and a good transition."

Emmanuel: "I have been volunteering for about eight years. I just wanted to find another way to help people. The key thing with AmeriCorps was actually the ability to help other people."

What has been your most significant success?

Maureen: "I felt that I have accomplished the challenges I set up for myself by starting VISTA service. I live independently. I've done just fine. And I'm ready now to move to a completely new state and live on my own again. These were my personal challenge that I set for myself and felt very successful. I accomplished that.

"As far as my job is concerned, one of the things that I was looking for was a supportive environment, which I have completely found at the school that I'm at. It's been an amazing experience. And an interesting side note to that is that there's some curriculum that the third graders do related to blindness. As a side thing, I have gone into those classes and educated them a little bit further. I'm a person in front of them. They can see how I do things. And I am very open with them and let them ask me any question that they want to. That's been a really interesting experience.

"I really loved being here. And I have gotten as much from interacting with the kids here as I've been able to give to them. It's a very international campus, as most of our students are from Southeast Asian countries. I have just loved interacting with them."

Kira: "I guess my biggest success was I worked with both students with disabilities and students without. I have a great story about the students with disabilities. I have cerebral palsy as an adult. I use an electric wheelchair. And two of the students that I was working with happened to be of daycare age, and they both did not know how to drive a wheelchair. So I was able to help them learn that skill during my two years of service. That was the best thing that I did during the first year that I served.

"The second year I was also able to take it a step further and help the students that did not have disabilities to learn a little bit about my disability specifically. Through learning, they were not scared when they saw someone with a disability on the street and approach them to ask questions about why they may be in a wheelchair. Whether they're going to answer their question was up to the person, [but] now those students now feel comfortable asking this question. And I feel very great about that."

Emmanuel: "I learned a lot of skills. When I first started volunteering, before I actually started AmeriCorps, I was about eleven. When they saw me working with a lot of the kids, they said, 'You should be one of our volunteers.' And when I first got there, you get kids who wonder with their eyes. They look because they want to know. So for the first couple months I was there, I did a lot of introductions and telling them about myself, who I was, why are you in a wheelchair, why do you get to use that? I was basically letting them know who I was. And letting them know that no matter what's wrong with me, I can still contribute to my country.

"I started doing math tutoring. Even if it was 20 minutes a day, [it was rewarding] being able to talk to a child and say, 'You can do that. You will do that. Because a winner never stops trying.' And so my biggest success was being able to see if a child could come up to you and say, 'Thank you for telling me that. Thank you for giving me the motivation to actually keep on going.' It has not only helped them but it has helped me, as well.

"I was born with cerebral palsy. And I didn't actually start using that to my advantage until I was able to understand what it was and why I'm like that. Maybe that's why God put me where he did, for me to be able to reach people. So I actually use it like a tool. I use it to my advantage. I don't put up with my disability-my disability puts up with me. I use it to the best of my ability to reach out to the community."

What challenges have you faced?

Maureen: "The two main things that I feel like are always a concern for somebody who is blind is learning how to navigate your facility, your site. My team leader came to my elementary school with me on my first day. Basically, he helped me figure out how to get from my bus stop down the hill to the school, and around my campus. And I also contacted a local organization called Community Services for the Blind and Partially Sighted, and they sent out a trained orientation and mobility specialist to do an hour or two of training with me on my campus. So my initial challenge was just orientation and mobility.

'The second concern for me was making contacts with the community, because I'm in a coordinator role, where a lot of my work was on the phone and via email. For the first three months of my job, we tried to find a computer that could facilitate my screen reading software. Because of the operating system that the Seattle public school system used, I had to upgrade my screen reading software. It took the first three months of my job to make all that work. So that was one of my bigger challenges. But it also provided me with the time to interact with all of the teachers and develop all those relationships that I needed to anyway. But beyond that, I couldn't really figure out phone numbers at my office if my computer was not working.

"One of my amusing stories was on my third day on the job, the school nurse basically tried to fire me because I have a guide dog. I'm 32 years old, but I was not above crying in a meeting because this man was telling me that maybe this wasn't the right place for me because I have a dog. What about allergies? And asthma? It was absolutely humiliating and horrible. At the time, I had only had my dog for three years. I was not always sure of what my rights were. It could only have gotten better from there, and it did.

"He's a really nice man. He didn't do it other than basically out of ignorance. He contacted the school district lawyer, who then called him back. And everything got straightened out. Really, it fixed itself. It was definitely a learning experience for me, though. He has since told me that the school district has completely reformed their policy on animals in the schools. And I am now more comfortable about asserting my rights, but not in a confrontational way. A year and a half later, I'm still here and I love it. "

Emmanuel: "When I first started, there were a lot of challenges. I always dealt directly with kids. The kids asked me questions about my wheelchair. They're like 'Wow, what is that for?' A little boy actually came up to me and he grabbed my controller. I was like oh my God, what am I going to do? I could not snatch his hand off. All I can do is say 'Stop!' That was another chance for me to teach someone. That happens a lot. People do stuff or say something because they don't know. I feel, especially people with disabilities, this is our job, to make people aware.

"So after that experience, I said look, something has to be done. I'm going to start making people aware of what to expect, what to look for. The more they know, the more they can help somebody else know, and then the more I learn. But it was scary at the time. [One tutoring student] said, 'You don't know this stuff.' Her reaction was I am in a wheelchair-therefore I [didn't] go to regular school.

Recently, I told a couple kids that I was thinking about going and finding another job. They say, 'Hey, no, don't leave us, you can't go.' They really want me to stick around.

"The value of a child is priceless. If I could teach that child something to become a better person in America, in society, then I don't care who I work for. You can't pay me that. So that's why I did it."

Kira: "My biggest challenge, I think, for my first year was transportation, trying to get to the national [AmeriCorps] meeting. I had to take both my wheelchair and my walker with me to Washington DC. Lo and behold, the story is that the wheelchair and walker ended up not getting on the plane with me but having to be flown to Washington DC on a separate plane. I ended up having to stay in the airport for two and a half hours with another AmeriCorps member who was nice enough to stay with me to give me moral support because I was about to pull my hair out. Two and a half hours that I was sitting in the airport in a cold airport wheelchair that they consider a 'comfortable chair'.

"The most challenging thing for my second year was to really get to know my other AmeriCorps members. Throughout my second year, I was able to complete some of my goals in a more professional way that I felt very good about as an AmeriCorps member."

Emmanuel: "Speaking of transportation, there were times where I didn't get picked up on time to get to work. And I have had times where I was at work and some full-time staff members had to stay with me until the bus got back here. Sometimes we couldn't even leave work until quarter to 10 or 10:30. That's how late the bus was.

"I have had times where we had AmeriCorps training and the bus didn't run that far. So my AmeriCorps supervisor or director tried to find a way for me to get there. There have also been times where we were scheduled for a training that got canceled after I was already on the bus. The bus has to drop you off. You can't say, 'Take me back home.'"

What can programs do to make the service experience run more smoothly for members with disabilities?

Kira: "I think the biggest word that could help us out is communication. I mean communication among the AmeriCorps member or whoever the volunteer is, with your program director, site supervisor, or whatever site you work with, just to make sure that you are both going to be comfortable. [As a recruiter] I'm training not only the members but also the AmeriCorps supervisors on how to recruit new people and make them feel comfortable. We have to be honest and communicate what our needs are as members, and also feel very supported as members and feel like we can contribute."

Emmanuel: "We went through a disability inclusion conference-all the members and the AmeriCorps program director. So I would say to your question: Eliminate barriers. It's better to know more than to know not enough. Because once you know more, you can learn how to prevent barriers."

For more information on ways to tap the talents of everyone who wants to serve, contact the National Service Inclusion Project.

Adapted by Danielle Dreilinger from an NSIP presentation.

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©The National Service Inclusion Project (NSIP) is a training and technical assistance provider on disability inclusion. NSIP partners with the Association on University Centers on Disability, National Council on Independent Living, Association on Higher Education and Disability and National Down Syndrome Congress to build connections between disability organizations and all CNCS grantees, including national directs, to increase the participation of people with disabilities in national service.