Having a Mentor With the Same Disability Is Important, Young People and Research Agree

FRANCINE DECOURSEY

Madeline Delp, at an event in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina in 2017, is mentoring a 15-year-old interested in competing in pageants as Delp has.

By Youth Today

Hannah Weitzman is almost 10 and the only kid with hearing loss in her neighborhood in Chappaqua, New York. When her family still lived in New York City five years ago, she was one of several children with hearing loss in speech therapy groups. 

“I wish she had a mentor,” her mother Jennifer Weitzman said. “Because she is growing up as the only one who is deaf, a mentor [with hearing loss] would be such an important role model for her to know what is possible. If she ever had a question about her hearing loss, it would be amazing for her to have that support and connection.”

Her New York City speech center, the Center for Hearing and Communication, offers a mentor program for kids 8 to 13 and adults 20 to 30 who have hearing loss and use spoken language. Weitzman hopes to sign Hannah up. 

Only one in three young people will grow up with a mentor, according to the nonprofit MENTOR. Those who do are 55% less likely to skip a day of school. If there’s an opportunity gap, a mentor makes young adults 81% more likely to participate regularly in sports or extracurricular activities. Youth with mentors also have fewer depressive symptoms and more positive social attitudes and relationships. The effects are far-reaching, because 90% are interested in becoming a mentor themselves and 130% are more likely to hold leadership positions. 

And these are just statistics for youth in general. Factor in disabilities and the effects are probably just as — if not more — dramatic.

RECIPROCAL RELATIONSHIPS

Madeline Delp, of Fletcher, North Carolina, has mentors and is also now mentoring others. The 26-year-old was in a car accident at age 10, which resulted in a spinal cord injury. She is completely paralyzed from the waist down. 

Her first experience with mentorship came when she had just turned 20 and decided she really wanted to experience competing in a beauty pageant. 

She competed in Ms. Wheelchair USA where for the first time she found herself surrounded by strong women in wheelchairs like herself. Since there’s no age limit in the pageant, she was able to connect with women who were much older and had gone through so much, she said.

“It made me realize that I needed to reach out to others about planning for my future,” Delp said. “It encouraged me to ask for help and learn from their experiences. It was the first time I was able to reach out to others who knew what I was going through to help with my growth as a person.”

Recently, she’s been talking about having children with a mentor who has the same disability and is expecting her fourth child. “It’s been so incredible having her as a resource to discuss the realities of planning a family and carrying a child,” Delp said. “As a disabled woman, my concerns aren’t always talked about in parenting magazines and it’s so helpful to have someone with firsthand experience to help me understand what it might be like someday.”

Another mentor was instrumental in helping Delp learn how to be a businesswoman and advocate for herself. While just one mentor can be effective, having a whole network allows for more diversity, fresh perspectives and increased learning.

Now Delp wants to be a mentor to as many people as possible, especially young people who are new to having a disability. One of her two current mentees is a 15-year-old girl who was inspired by her work in pageants to enter one herself. She has a similar disability and like Delp was nervous to make the jump into pageants where she’ll likely be the only contestant with a disability. 

“It’s been such an honor and privilege to be able to coach her on her journey and watch her develop into the amazing young woman I knew she could be,” Delp said with pride.

RESULTS FROM BEING MENTORED

CENTER FOR HEARING AND COMMUNICATION Center mentors and mentees engaged in conversation and ice breaker games in October 2019.

The importance of having a mentor with the same disability was addressed in a 2018 review of 40 studies on mentoring for youth with disabilities that looked at key questions like documented effectiveness. Conducted by Sally Lindsay from the University of Toronto and Michelle R. Munson at New York University, the review found there are potential benefits from mentoring in academics, employment, psychosocial health and quality of life, and transition-related and life skills. 

As one in five people in the U.S. has some type of disability, it’s “a virtual guarantee that all mentoring programs are serving youth with disabilities (even when the program does not proactively recruit youth with disabilities),” wrote Mike Garringer from MENTOR and Genelle Thomas from Partners for Youth with Disabilities as part of the review. “Therefore … all mentoring programs should be prepared to adopt an inclusive approach to ensure that youth with disabilities are being served in a meaningful, equitable way.”

The Center for Hearing and Communication, which began its mentoring program in October 2017, ran three programs a year pre-COVID, such as a haunted house scavenger hunt. Now events are virtual and range from STEM science programs to a game night.

“Our mentors count down the weeks until the next event,” said Dana Selznick, who coordinates the program, and the kids love seeing adults “just like them.” Most of the time mentees come from families where they’re the only one with a hearing loss. While they may know other kids from therapy, they’ve often never met an adult who grew up with a hearing loss. 

The mentors like being able to give back to a younger generation, Selznick said. “Many have shared that they wished there was a program like this to participate in when they were kids. In addition, the program allows them to meet other mentors and build friendships with other young professionals in the hearing loss community.”

Weitzman feels a mentor for her daughter would show her what’s possible. The mentor could answer questions about hearing loss, provide support, connection and help her navigate things like school, friendships and applying to college. 

“I feel knowing someone who knows exactly what she may be going through would help her feel less alone and can offer a tremendous resource because none of her friends can truly understand,” she said.

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