A hotel suite jam packed with Disabled and Deaf youth, of all different backgrounds and identities, from all across the country, prepping for the largest national celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Youth Caucus Chair Maddy Ruvolo and I stood on our toes, toppling over furniture, just to ensure all of the young community members could identify who we were and what we were saying.
We were prepping for a surprise chant that would occur during my speech later that night. And as the excitement and empowerment filled every corner of the room, we all smiled, some signing, and others chanting:
“Generation ADA, We are leaders today!”
“Generation ADA, We are leaders today!”
Allie Cannington; Oct. 30, 2015
It was the evening of July 26, the second day of the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) 2015 Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. This year’s theme was “Generation ADA: Rise Up” to celebrate and bridge the power of young people with disabilities with the wisdom and leadership of those who made the ADA possible.
More young people attended NCIL’s conference than ever before: more than 80 youth from across the nation and 20-plus youth from Japan. Whether we were leading and attending workshops, receiving awards at the NCIL Awards Luncheon, pushing Justin Dart’s wheelchair whilst leading the national march and rally, or building community during moments of downtime; everywhere you turned, there was another young person with disabilities. We, Generation ADA, were ever-present, even at the NCIL Annual Meeting when Felicia Agrelius, a young leader from California, was elected to the NCIL Board of Directors.
Now reflecting back to the conference, to the tireless efforts to ensure attendance and leadership of youth with disabilities, particularly youth who were unable to attend in the past and youth with multiple marginalized identities—it all feels like a dream.
But it is no longer the dream that was envisioned more than a year ago. The now ever-growing NCIL young leaders community has become a reality.
This triumphant success of the 2015 NCIL Annual Conference roots back to the hard work and support of the funders of the NCIL Youth Scholarship Fund, the NCIL Youth Caucus,the Youth Transitions Fellowship (YTF), and of course, the mentorship of adult allies.
With support from The HSC Foundation, NCIL now hosts the YTF, a fellowship dedicated to supporting young people with disabilities along their paths to full employment. There are a variety of initiatives that fall under the fellowship, from management of the Greater Washington Internship Coalition to youth engagement and organizing with the NCIL membership. Yet, even an attempt to fully describe my experience, as the first YTF at NCIL, is impossible. And now I am overcome with awe; awe of the cultural and organizational shifts that have occurred since my start as YTF in June 2014.
Regardless of the past year’s success, there is no doubt that the efforts toward intentional and diverse youth engagement, leadership and community building have just begun.
The responsibility of youth engagement and leadership in any social justice movement cannot rest on the shoulders of a few. The challenge we face now is how to sustain and extend the community development and empowerment that erupted this year.
How can we move beyond the youth engagement that happens at annual national conferences and sporadic landmark legislative anniversaries?
This is not enough to ensure continuous movement growth, particularly when our nation’s disability rights movement is working to ensure the freedom and equity of ALL people with disabilities, including youth with disabilities.
There must be a newfound investment in youth with disabilities and youth who are Deaf because a majority of us, particularly youth with disabilities who hold multiple marginalized identities, are perpetually isolated from the community and movement. And there are a myriad of reasons why youth participation and leadership grow dim; all of which directly link to the implications of ableism and audism embedded in every system that impact our nation’s Deaf and Disabled young people, from education to foster care to juvenile justice systems.
With all of these barriers facing people with disabilities, particularly youth with disabilities, we must first provide the access to the knowledge that there are larger systems benefiting non-disabled and hearing people at the expense of people with disabilities and folks who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing. This knowledge is cultivated through access to Disability and Deaf rights and justice education, which today, most commonly occurs through relationship building and mentorship.
The need for sustainable community investment in Deaf and Disabled young people brings me to the commemoration of this month’s Disability Mentoring Day (DMD). As I reflect on this day, I think back to one of the last conversations I had with Ki’tay D. Davidson, a young revolutionary who left us physically this past December. For hours, we discussed the power of mentorship and the need for mentorship to last beyond one event, one day, one resume workshop. We reflected on the desperate need for mentorship programs and youth engagement initiatives to intentionally include and center Disabled and Deaf youth who belong to a multitude of marginalized communities (e.g., Disabled and Deaf youth who are LGBTQIA, people of color, low income, returned citizens, English Language Learners, etc.).
That evening, Ki’tay and I dreamt of a world where all young people with disabilities had authentic and loving mentors; who saw their mentees holistically; and, who invested in their pain, struggle and beauty.
But this type of mentorship extends beyond one recognized day.
It extends to a way of living in community and existing within a social justice movement like the Disability Rights and Deaf Rights movements. Ki’tay reminded me during this conversation that – even as a young person – it is never too early to start mentoring other young folks with disabilities. That night I newly committed myself to intentionally mentoring fellow Disabled young people—as I am not too young to begin investing in my peers and those who have yet to know that this community is theirs.
So all of this being said, I am filled with confidence in our nation’s Deaf and Disabled young people, the power of Generation ADA and those who have invested in us. Personally, I want to thank all of the mentors who have invested in me, because I am here today, in part, because of you. So as I write this and continue to hold myself accountable to mentorship, I challenge you and all of us to do the same, because:
“Generation ADA, We are leaders today!”
Allie Cannington served as the 2014-15 Youth Transitions Fellow at the National Council on Independent Living, the longest running, national cross-disability grassroots organization run by and for people with disabilities. Cannington is a recent graduate of American University, where she studied Political Science and Sociology. During her time in Washington DC, Allie’s advocacy led her to establish and support social justice programs and campaigns that met at the intersections of LGBTQ, Disability and Racial Justice. At NCIL, Allie organized national and local efforts to empower and organize youth with disabilities, particularly through self-advocacy, community empowerment, and employment development initiatives. Some of these include: managing the Greater Washington Internship Coalition; creating and facilitating #OwningOurStories, a storytelling and employment empowerment project; and coordinating youth participation and leadership at the NCIL 2015 Annual Conference “GenerationADA: Rise Up”. Now, Allie is en route back to her roots in the Bay Area, where she will continue to pursue allyship and social justice advocacy.