Recent NY Times piece highlights importance of mentoring youth with disabilities

Written by Justin Preston

A new piece in the New York Times highlights the importance of caring adults providing support for youths living with disability. The author, Alaina Leary, describes her mother’s role not just as a caregiver, but also as a model for being an adult with a disability.

Once Leary began exhibiting symptoms of inherited disabilities, it was her mother that stood next to her and helped her to navigate the “early years”, as she described them:

“Like every other child, I asked questions: “Why can’t you drive a car?” “Will I be able to drive?” “How come I have trouble walking up the stairs and my best friend doesn’t?” My mom helped me navigate the early years smoothly, and even when we didn’t have all the answers — audiologists were continually confused about my trouble understanding speech, which we later learned was sensory processing disorder, because I passed every hearing test easily — my mom figured out how to accommodate my needs. We didn’t know at first exactly why I had trouble walking up the stairs, but my mom was happy to hold my arm as I ascended each step two feet at a time so that I wouldn’t fall.”

However, that support only lasted until Leary was 11 years old with the passing of her mother. Without that continual support, Leary was forced to look elsewhere to receive guidance in navigating life’s difficulties.

As Leary writes, “I could ask adults about choosing a college, how to advance in a career and what to look for in my first apartment, but my nondisabled mentors didn’t have to think about accessibility or accommodations, or the havoc that a constant physical hustle and lack of sleep can wreak on my body.”

Fortunately, she was able to find individuals, a college professor, her father, a social support group for individuals with disabilities, that were asking the same questions and overcoming similar challenges.

So where can mentors and mentoring programs fit into this picture? Notably, natural mentoring relationships such as the ones Leary had with her professors served her in good stead, as did the peer relationships she developed. However, these supports are, in many ways, too important to leave to chance and life’s coincidences. Supplementing those naturally-developed relationships with targeted, formal mentoring programs can help to improve outcomes for youths with disabilities in a number of areas. These areas include topics such as academics, self-advocacy, and housing.

There are a number of resources available to youth and teens living with disability. As a mentor or mentoring program, tapping into resources can help you to think about the ins and outs of growing up from a perspective different from your own. Often, these are challenges that most are not aware of, as they are never asked to navigate public transit in a wheelchair, study for an exam with dyslexia, or other barriers to success.

Organizations such as Partners for Youth with Disabilities emphasize the importance of building understanding into mentoring programs the daily lives and efforts of youth with disabilities. The National Mentoring Resource Center (NMRC) offers some resources for programs seeking to better support youth living with disability. The Department of Labor also has facts and resources available.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is hoped that it can serve as a starting point for programs seeking to bolster their support of youth with disabilities. As Leary states in her closing, “My mom was the first disabled adult in my life, but not the last. She taught me that I’m strong and capable…. Everyone should be so lucky. And with the right guidance and access to others willing to help, many people with disabilities can.”