Transition to Independence

This time of year, we gather together to watch our young people prepare for life after high school. It’s a time for celebration and joy, as well as a time for apprehension and sadness.

The transition to adulthood can be overwhelming for any family but can be especially difficult for families of children with disabilities. For many, the difficulty stems from the lack of available and meaningful options for employment, education and independent living.

Not every student will choose the same path, but everyone should have the opportunity to make a choice and fully participate in that chosen lifestyle. Young adults with disabilities want the same things as their peers without disabilities: to learn, to have friends, to be successful, to accomplish goals, to work, to be self-directing.

Advocacy for policy, programs and legislation that support inclusion and opportunity is so important for this generation of young adults. Some opportunities already exist. They include IDEA funds, Plans for Achieving Self-Support (PASS Plans), vocational rehabilitation, family funds, other rehabilitation programs to help students with developmental disabilities access post-secondary education, and integrated employment services. 

The transition programs and the policies and legislation that support these programs ensure students have the options and opportunities that will shape the rest of their lives. AIM Independent Living Center can assist families during this transition period. For more information about available programs and options, visit  aimcil.com/programsservices/transition-service

Beyond the blue light

April is Autism Awareness Month. In these first days of the month, we have been flooded with autism awareness campaigns, fundraisers and stories of inspiration and hope. We have seen famous landmarks and local buildings illuminated in blue light, and a number of businesses and brands are taking advantage of this marketing opportunity in support of autism awareness.

Autism has been widely recognized as a social disability since the 1980s. And with the recent statistics indicating 1 in 68 children are identified as having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it might be time to move past the idea of awareness. It’s time for acceptance and action.

It’s not enough just to be aware. Taking action to support individuals with autism and their families means generating a greater understanding and knowledge of autism. It means advocating for public policies that support children and adults with autism. It means changing the way we look at disability. And it means working together to challenge misconceptions and outdated ideas.

One in 68 children will grow up to be adults with autism. The shift from awareness to action needs to happen now. Moving toward acceptance means better support for individuals and families that live autism every day, not just in April.

Disability and diversity at New York Fashion Week

Rex Features via AP Images

Diversity in media and advertising is on the rise, and New York Fashion Week took note. For most of us, what happens on the runway during NYFW has little to no impact on our daily lives. But when we see the obvious changes in social attitudes reflected at NYFW, we take note.

Wrong to generalize Super Bowl ads as “inspirational porn”

The commercials featured during this year’s Super Bowl were an obvious departure from what is traditionally touted during the big game. From the NFL’s Domestic Violence PSA to the even more chilling ad for Nationwide Insurance to Carnival’s ad featuring the John F. Kennedy monologue, there was a deep, if not sobering, theme that resonated with many of the commercials that aired Sunday.

Super Bowl 49 commercials also put a spotlight on disability. Microsoft, Toyota, and McDonalds all featured individuals with disabilities in their multimillion dollar ads. Paralympian Amy Purdy was front and center in Toyota’s Camry ad, Microsoft ran a profile of a young boy using prostheses, and McDonalds featured a third-grader with Down syndrome and her family in their “Nothing but lovin’” ad.

The representation of disability in the media during one of the biggest viewing nights of the year might be considered a big win in conquering stigma and marginalization, but the other side of that is the idea that ads like these only aim to sensationalize people with disabilities.

In an article written for the online news publication Salon.com, journalist Elizabeth Heideman is quick to point out the media’s tendency to sensationalize disability. She writes specifically about the idea of “inspiration porn” as it relates to the Super Bowl ads for Toyota and Microsoft. “Both commercials were meant to inspire and motivate viewers with Purdy and O’Neill’s stories, but for disability activists, that’s exactly what’s wrong with the ads,” Heideman writes.

While Heideman’s article brings up many valid points about exploiting individuals with disabilities, it is a difficult sell in connection to these particular ads. It is true that having a disability doesn’t automatically make someone an inspiration to others. But what if you are a professional athlete who happens to have a disability? Where do you make that distinction between exploitation and storytelling – or traditional athlete product endorsements? And is it possible that the individuals in these commercials were just faces; not the face of disability or some inspirational misrepresentation of disability?

To generalize that someone with a disability shouldn’t be looked at as remarkable or impressive doesn’t promote inclusion and full representation, either. It’s important that we are careful not to diminish the accomplishments of anyone—disability or no disability.

No doubt there is a fine line between exploitation and reporting, but the positive representation—or unremarkable depiction—of disability during this significant viewing event is an encouraging step toward the goal of full inclusion.

The media and mental illness

Nearly one in five Americans experiences some type of diagnosable mental illness each year. It is safe to acknowledge that we have all been touched by the effects of mental illness. Yet, as a culture, we continue to endorse and perpetuate stigmatizing attitudes about mental illness.

Media portrayals of individuals living with mental illness are often exaggerated and unrealistic.  For instance:

  •  When a mass shooting happens, mental illness is often overstated, eliciting fear from viewers.
  •  When a celebrity displays bizarre behavior, mental illness can quickly morph into entertainment.
  •  When pitying a character with a mental illness is the sole intent of a TV show or a movie.

How the media represents mental illness undoubtedly helps to shape public attitudes—for better or worse.

Stigma erodes the reality of mental illness within our culture and perpetuates prejudice and discrimination. Stigma makes a difference in how individuals access treatment, how they live in their communities, and how they internalize their illness.

We can all challenge stereotypes and fight discrimination by educating our peers and communities. Media literacy is an important part of this education. By challenging and questioning how the media portrays mental illness, we can begin to change stereotypes and prevent pervasive discrimination.

Educating other people so they understand the facts about mental health issues and treating people with respect and compassion are good first steps to de-stigmatizing mental illness within our culture.

Let lever voting machines sunset

For many of the people who make up the American electorate, casting a vote is a routine errand on Election Day. Typically, it goes something like this: Park the car, walk inside, check in, walk to a machine, press a few buttons, leave. Ten minutes well-spent on an important day in our democracy.

If you live in New York and have a disability, however, it’s entirely possible that your voting experience won’t be quite as clean as the scenario described above — at least in the case of local elections.

Why? Because New York State continues to allow lever voting machines to be used in local and school elections.

This fact might not seem significant, but for people with some disabilities, lever machines pose a serious barrier to voting. Sure, they can ask for help from the poll worker or a caregiver, but shouldn’t all voters be allowed to privately cast their ballots?

It’s time for New York to follow the spirit of the Help America Vote Act, which became law in 2002. We must ensure that voting is accessible to all eligible New Yorkers, and implementing accessible voting machines in ALL elections is a huge piece to that puzzle.

Lever voting machines in New York were supposed to ride off into the sunset two years ago, but the Legislature took action to extend inaccessible voting. Like most things, it came down to cost.

Many lawmakers and disability advocates have the issue on their radars, but more work needs to be done. If you’d like to help rid the state of inaccessible voting machines, contact your local state representative. Reps of the Elmira-Corning area can be found here. Or find your senator and assemblyman.