By Angela West
Do you remember when you were little and you played “Follow the Leader?”
I was so excited when I got to be the leader and led my friends to do fun things around the playground. I felt so confident because my friends were taking direction from me.
So, I began to ask myself, if we teach children to play that game when they are young, why do we then tell them that they are the future leaders? Aren’t they leaders now?
As a self-advocate and professional in the field, I love to work with youth and young adults who have disabilities. I get so energized when I hear their ideas and new perspectives about living with a disability and speaking up for themselves! They have a fresh outlook on the world! They know how to show people who they really are and what they can accomplish.
The other day, I was sitting in a meeting where a professional was talking to a group of youth about becoming the future leaders in America. Although it was really exciting to see them learning from someone who has travelled the road of self-advocacy and now is doing system advocacy, I became a little sad.
This was because these youth are leaders now, not tomorrow. They have the ability to advocate for themselves and for their peers to make real change that will affect them now.
Some opportunities they have to be leaders in their day-to-day lives are when they say:
“I want to be a part of my IEP meeting.”
“I want to go to college.”
“I want to choose who is going to help me throughout the day.”
“I want to help my friends know their options.”
Every leader has a team that fosters growth and learning. It is our responsibility to be on their team, give them the right tools, allow them to make mistakes, and to help them grow!
****Angela West currently resides in Chesapeake, Virginia. She earned her Bachelor’s in Therapeutic Recreation and a Master’s Degree in Rehabilitation Counseling from Virginia Commonwealth University. She works with VCU Partnership for People with Disabilities as the Multicultural Specialist. This position enables her to serve families and professionals by leading discussions about the cultural impact on disability. She has served on boards, including the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities, Virginia’s Employment First Advisory Group, and the Chesapeake Special Education Advisory Committee. Her passion for advocacy stemmed from watching her mother advocate for her rights as a first-generation immigrant. Angela served as Ms. Wheelchair Virginia 2015, where she spoke to over 200 audiences throughout the state.