Growing up in a small town with a disability was difficult. There weren’t many other young people who were going through what I was going through. Sure, I found ways to connect with my peers but there was always something missing. None of my peers understood the concept of “going blind” or being “legally blind.” When I was 17 I joined the “sheltered” workforce at a blind-work organization. While this was only a stepping-stone for me to gain experience and get through college, I also found a group of peers who understood my unique struggle. Through this organization I helped start a support group for youth who faced vision-related barriers. This is where I gained a true peer experience. I learned much from my peers and even mentored many individuals through some significant struggles. I was empowered… and there was no stopping me.
Currently I work at Access to Independence, an independent living center (ILC) in central New York. For the past five years, I have worked to build peer support initiatives youth and have developed some excellent tools. Getting youth involved in ILC activities can be as simple as helping a young person to L.E.A.R.N. That’s Lead, Empower, Advocate, Recreate, and Network!
Lead: Leadership is perhaps one of the most powerful ways to get young people involved. Through leadership on a board of directors, peer group facilitator, volunteer, or even a staff member, can boost their confidence and build essential life and career skills. Not to mention, you’re giving a young person a voice in how services are run for young people. That is the independent living philosophy!
Empower: Empowering young people comes from helping a young person find “internal value.” By this I mean believing in your ability to see what you want and go after it with motivated energy. It means knowing that you, as a young person, can make a difference and have the power to improve a community. It means you want to help others become empowered.
Advocate: It is not easy having a disability. There are stigmas and barriers we face on a daily basis. As young people, we need to advocate against the discrimination, both of our ability and of our age. Helping youth to advocate for themselves and others is empowering and helps them feel comfortable with leadership.
Recreate: We all want to have fun! Recreation, especially with our peers, helps us learn about each other. It connects us on a human level and helps us develop life-long friendships. Often, recreational events will help build strong teams and will be the energy that keeps a youth group motivated.
Network: Through an ILC and the above concepts, young people will have opportunities to network. They will meet other young people, community leaders, government officials, and role models. Networking creates opportunities to be successful and to help others succeed. Remember: “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”