Mariah Hartzell, 17, dreams of being in a position where she can help students with disabilities.
“A friend of ours from school has a very bad disability,” she said. “He has to use an iPad for everything and I have to help him a lot.”
The Milford High School senior is inspired to help students with disabilities because she knows what it’s like. She has cataracts, a medical condition where the lens of the eyes become opaque, resulting in blurred vision.
The state is taking a hands-on role helping students with disabilities, such as Hartzell, who want to become leaders. The Department of Education and the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation created a series of leadership conferences where 50 seniors learn the importance of leadership and the ability to advocate for themselves.
Sandra Miller, transition coordinator for vocational rehabilitation with the Delaware Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, said educators came up with the idea after discussing ways to help special needs students succeed after high school.
“We felt that it was really important that we were getting students’ voices heard around that planning,” Miller said. “Instead of all the professionals sitting around and talking about what we think needs to happen, we wanted to hear it from the students.”
Four times a year students with disabilities gather at Dover Downs. The final conference of the school year is March 16.
Part of the conference is listening to encouraging words from someone with a disability.
LeDerick Horne is a poet, author and motivational speaker who grew up with a disability.
Horne speaks to the students about how important it is to maintain focus, persevere and learn about laws relating to people with disabilities.
“I come to this work as a person with a special disability myself,” Horne said. “I was classified as having a learning disability when I was in the third grade.”
Horne said his disability impacts spelling, reading comprehension, calculations and his ability to pay attention. His goal, at the end of the day, is to make sure each student leaves with more confidence than when they arrived.
“I want to give them what they need so they can be the best they can in any situation,” Horne said.
Miller said the students need to be able to advocate on their own behalf, and real life examples help achieve that. The ability to advocate on her own behalf is a reason Amber McFadden, from John S. Charlton School in the Caesar Rodney School District, joined the conference.
“This way I can get a job and be able to tell them about my disability,” McFadden.
“They need to see someone who has turned something that could be looked at as a barrier into something that’s helping them get through life,” Miller said.
Department of Education Associate Dale Matusevich said another important piece of the conference is increasing self-esteem. They want students to go back to their school districts and become leaders.
“[They] feel like they are the only person on the island — there is nobody else like them,” Matusevich said. “Bringing them together like this they can share their own experiences.”
Miller said measuring the success of the conferences is a challenge.
“With transition being such a large process that involves so many different entities, including the Department of Education, local schools, DVR and some other state agencies, we want to know if it’s beneficial and if we should keep doing it,” she said. “Right now it’s hard for us to be able to say that in the sense that we don’t have a way to share data across those entities.”
By giving students an active role in their transition, educators are hoping to make it easier when they either go to college or look for employment.