The Making of a (Self) Advocate
Editor’s Note: Growing up with cerebral palsy and cortical visual impairment (CVI), high school Junior, Jaida, shares how she doesn’t see her challenges as “barriers”; she sees “puzzles” that she can solve. Jaida’s parents raised her to be a self-advocate. Starting in middle school, Jaida was empowered to share her story which inspired her to use her voice to educate others and challenge stereotypes of multiple disabilities and CVI.
Advocacy isn’t something you learn once and never have to work on again. Advocacy is a work in progress every day. There wasn’t a specific day or time when I started learning to advocate for myself; advocacy has always been part of my life. Whether my mom asked for the information she needed for her business or therapists telling my teachers what accommodations I needed, I have always seen advocacy throughout my life. Even though I don’t know when my road to self-advocacy began, I remember defining moments where advocacy was the key to my success.
The most significant moment for me on my advocacy journey was in eighth grade when my vice-principal asked me to write a paper about how I lived with my disability and then present it before the whole school. When this opportunity arose, I didn’t say “no,” just because it involved giving a speech and speaking in public, which I’d never done before. I was nervous but recognized that this was a chance for me to explain what it was like to live and thrive with challenges to people who didn’t have a disability. I gave my speech in front of the whole school at an assembly. I explained to my fellow middle-school students what cerebral palsy was and how I was lucky. Many people with cerebral palsy must be fed through a feeding tube and have cognitive delays and learning difficulties. I’m fortunate because I don’t have those challenges. I also talked about how it upset me when people see me as a disability before seeing me as a person because, as I said in my speech, “I’m not the girl with cerebral palsy I’m the girl who happens to have cerebral palsy.” This statement is still valid for me today. I still feel it’s necessary to acknowledge that there is more to someone than just their disability; however, it doesn’t hurt me as it did when I was young. The invitation to share my experiences with my peers, help teach them about cerebral palsy, and look beyond stereotypes of “disability” ignited my passion for advocating for people with disabilities. I am forever grateful for the opportunity.
Another stop on my advocacy road that helped strengthen my advocacy skills was when I joined the Boundless Washington program. Boundless Washington is a two-year program started by the former lieutenant governor of Washington State, Cyrus Habib. The Washington Leadership Board now runs it. The Boundless Washington program aims to teach kids with disabilities leadership skills through the great outdoors. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some fantastic leaders and learned what it means to be a leader myself. I met the (former) Lieutenant (Lt.) Governor Cyrus Habib, Senator Joe Nguyen of the 34th legislative district, Former Lummi Nation Jay Julius Chairman, and many more civic leaders. Out of all the people I’ve met so far through this program, Senator Nguyen was the most meaningful person to me. He taught me that anyone can be an advocate.
Lighting a Spark
Being a part of Boundless Washington, we had the opportunity to join students from the Washington World Fellows, another program started by Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib, in a five-week civics course that taught us about the legislative process, and that is how I met Senator Nguyen. The civics course ignited a spark inside me to pursue a political career and advocate for people with disabilities and get them the help they need.
Boundless Washington has also taught me that sometimes I must go outside my comfort zone to grow and gain leadership opportunities. Recently, I led my first discussion hosted by The Washington Leadership Board (WSLB). WSLB has a new speaker series. The speaker series aims to talk about current issues that we face. In the first episode of the speaker series, WSLB addressed climate change. My friend Ritika Khanal, a student in the Boundless Washington program, co-hosted the panel with me, and we talked with Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, former chairman of the Lummi nation Jay Julius, and Environmental educator Maria Sheldon. For me, the most memorable moment of the discussion was when Jay Julius explained what it means to be a leader. He said being a leader meant “giving voice to the voiceless.” This quote has stuck with me and will be how I look at being a leader from here on out. This experience helped me grow as a leader. I was nervous to lead the discussion because I had never done anything like it before. However, if I hadn’t stepped out of my comfort zone, I would have never gained such an amazing opportunity or grown as a leader.
Speaking Out About Ableism
The last experience I want to share is when I applied for the Heumann-Armstrong Award. The Heumann-Armstrong Award recognizes sixth graders and older who have a disability and are presently experiencing ableism: Ableism is discriminating against someone because of their disability. One question on the award’s application asked if we had experienced ableism before and how we had fought against it. I said that I had experienced ableism a few times and fought against it by educating people. I shared my story of speaking to my school about living with cerebral palsy in eighth grade. Another question on the form asked how we thought schools and colleges could better prevent ableism. I believe ableism happens because people are unsure of how to treat someone with a disability and that schools could help resolve ableism by offering a class or workshop covering inclusion practices. I can’t wait to see who won the award. It will be an excellent opportunity for anyone who wins!
A Never-Ending Journey
Advocacy is a never-ending road where all paths lead you to become a strong advocate and leader, passionately standing up for what you believe is right. The route takes on many forms. Whether you advocate for something you need in the classroom to be a better learner or support a group of people, you are an advocate. You can make a difference, so take risks, explore the unknown, and make extraordinary things happen!