A first job is a big milestone in life. For a person with a disability, it can be loaded with barriers.
Advocacy Academy, an 8-week paid summer internship program through Disability Network Southwest Michigan, offers people a way to gain employment skills and minimize those barriers. They learn by planning and implementing a disability advocacy project.
“A lot of participants will say it’s the first time that somebody really believed in them,” said Miranda Grunwell, who has led the program for all of its seven years as a community education coordinator for Disability Network. “It’s an opportunity for them to feel accepted, and a safe place to learn and grow without being judged.”
Advocacy Academy recently won a $2,640 grant funded by attendees of United Way’s Pop Up Giving for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Grunwell said the money will be put toward expanding the Kalamazoo-based program into Battle Creek.
“Our office in Battle Creek has been going strong for a few years, and we’re working with more and more youth, so we’re going to focus on Battle Creek and see if the community support is there,” she said. “This will help get us started for the first year.”
For this year’s program, more than 20 applicants submitted resumes. Six were selected. While the program is open to ages 16-29, this year’s group is the youngest yet. Grunwell looks for passionate people who are willing to work with others and can help make up a cross-disability group.
Participants begin with two weeks of orientation similar to other jobs: They fill out HR paperwork, complete a DISC profile and learn the history of the organization. Over the course of the program, they also learn about job accommodations and their rights as workers, how to report income if they earn disability benefits, and other skills as needed such as using public transportation to get to work.
Then there’s the advocacy piece. Each year, after learning what advocacy is and how it’s generally done, the group will go through a process to decide on one disability project based around changing a system.
This year’s group, after watching a video on disability history, decided to focus on the education system.
“They got really fired up and really disappointed that they had learned nothing about their history,” Grunwell said. “These are high school juniors and seniors and freshmen in college that had no idea that it took years for the Americans with Disabilities Act to be passed and how hard it was.”
Their goal: Have disability history taught for a minimum of three days a year, K-12, in area public schools. The project culminated in a trip to Lansing on July 31, where they pitched the idea to staff members in the offices of State Representatives Jon Hoadley and Brandt Iden.
This year’s interns graduated on Aug. 15. If previous graduates are any indication, several will go on to other employment, college or volunteer opportunities.
Many interns come into the program having heard “if” their whole lives: “if” they go to college, “if” they get a job, “if” they have a family, etc. Grunwell said she makes a point to replace “if” with “when”.
“Now you hear them changing their language, too,” she said. “That’s a slow, but powerful process.”
To make your own impact, join us at United Way’s next Pop Up Giving event, Sept. 25 in at 650 Trade Centre Way in Portage.