Dreams of Independence

Dreams of Independence: Disability Rights Advocate Judy Heumann and Experts on Bringing Young People with Disabilities Closer to Independent Adulthood


(New York, NY)—Approximately 200 young people with disabilities, parents and professionals attended INCLUDEnyc’s “Dreams of Independence” Symposium on Tuesday, December 11th at CUNY Graduate Center.

The event featuring international disability rights advocate Judy Heumann discussed the progress and challenges that young people face in working towards independence. INCLUDEnyc provides information on education and community resources to young people with disabilities and their families.

In conversation with WNYC reporter Yasmeen Khan, Judy shared her early experiences of discrimination when she was barred from school as a wheelchair user at age 5. Instead, a teacher was sent to instruct her at home for about 2 hours/day. As a young adult, she also faced discrimination when seeking her NYC teaching license. “I learned how to advocate from my parents. It’s not difficult for me to fight for something I believe in,” Judy Heumann shared. “If you are afraid to turn your advocacy voice on, that is what you need to work on,” she advised.

“Young people with disabilities and their families still face the challenges of stigma related to disability, inaccessible schools and workplaces, and the implementation of laws ensuring the rights of people with disabilities. We help young people and their families navigate through these difficult processes,” said Barbara Glassman, Executive Director of INCLUDEnyc.

See Facebook album from the event here.

At the Symposium, a panel of expert parents and students shared their experiences in self-advocacy and their journey towards independence. Panelists included self-advocates Matthew Conlin, who advises on accessibility in higher education and at NYC cultural institutions, Tyrese Alleyne-Davis, a first-year college student who earned a full scholarship to NYU and Rachelle Tucker, an aspiring aesthetician and self-advocate.

Self-advocates discussed the challenges that they faced throughout their academic career and how they overcame obstacles to work towards independence. In elementary school, when Matthew faced difficulties completing an assignment due to his disability, his teacher told him that he was not trying hard enough. In middle school, Tyrese was forced to eat lunch in a corner by himself because his wheelchair didn’t fit at the cafeteria table. He also inappropriately received physical therapy in a school bathroom and occupational therapy in a hallway.

More photos from the event here.

In high school, when Rachelle needed more time on her Regents exam, the test administrator was unaware of her IEP accommodations. “If a teacher doesn’t know your IEP, someone slipped up. There is a lack of communication,” Judy noted. “When I was growing up, there were no protections for people with disabilities. Now, there is a legal framework to support advocacy.”

Parents Felicia Alleyne-Davis, Heather Tucker, and Chantel Paige-Patterson also shared their experiences. Chantel, who appeared with her son Nasaiah on episodes of the Sesame Street and Autism series, said, “You have to learn how to lead. Do not leave your child’s services—or your vision of what your child can become—up to anyone else.”

Felicia emphasized that it’s never too early to prepare for a child’s independent future. “From when he was born, I’ve advocated for my son. Before we even had a definitive diagnosis, I did research and talked to other parents. I asked for speech therapy, occupational therapy and a special education teacher. I never gave up on Tyrese and never let him give up on himself.” Like Judy Heumann, the young panelists modeled their own advocacy on their parents’. “My mom laid the foundation for me. I started attending my IEP meetings at age 9. If I see something is wrong, I have to act,” Tyrese said.

“The number of people with disabilities keeps growing, yet we are still invisible. There are 1 billion people worldwide with a disability, including 1 in 4 nationally. For those of us who have a disability, we need to own it, talk about it and hold our communities accountable. Based on race, gender, sexual orientation and many other factors, we each experience disability differently. We also need non-disabled people to listen, to be our allies and to discuss the issues of the day through a disability lens,” Judy Heumann said.

“Most people know someone with a disability and appreciate the advocates taking disability out from behind the curtain. To quote Judy, ‘disability is a family anyone can belong to,’” Yasmeen Khan noted.

To learn more about INCLUDEnyc and upcoming events, visit www.includenyc.org.