Students in the Advocates in Action club at Oñate High School pose with speakers Amira Rasheed and Adam Shand at the Self Advocacy Leadership Conference, Wednesday. (Amy Vogelsang Photo)
“Advocacy means to stick up for what you believe in,” The ARC of New Mexico program assistant Amira Rasheed said at the Self Advocacy Leadership Conference held Wednesday at Sally Port Inn.
The ARC of New Mexico, an organization that helps improve the quality of life for individuals with disabilities, along with the Center for Self Advocacy put on the leadership conference to empower people with disabilities to be their own advocates, said Connie DeHerrera, who is with the Center for Self Advocacy.
Self-advocate Cynthia Berkheimer attests to how important it is that a disability does not define a person and that he or she still deserves respect.
“We’re no different from anyone else,” Berkheimer said. “We have feelings and we have rights.”
The organization’s motto, “Nothing about us without us,” is a fighting statement to push for a person’s involvement in meetings that concern his or her future.
More than 127 attended the conference, and sessions covered everything from an occupational training program at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, to a group of high school students with a club to spread awareness, to personal testimonies to promote the acceptance of differences.
Oñate High School seniors Hunter Tomlin, Lindsay Jacobs, Seth Lujan, Sarah Luschei and Mireya Esnayder traveled from Las Cruces to talk about their club’s initiative to stop the use of the “R” word, complete with shirts declaring, “Spread the Word to Stop the Word.”
“Last year every day I heard people use the word ‘retard’ or ‘retarded,’ and I thought you know, no, this has to stop,” Tomlin said. “Back in the 1960s and 1970s I guess it was OK because it was a medical term. But today, this is now, and everyone uses that just because they try to be funny and make it as a racist joke.”
Using activities that include everyone, those with and without disabilities, such as the Harlem Shake or a softball game, the Advocates in Action club has gotten more than 1,000 signatures to say they will put an end to the use of the “R” word and also raised $1,800 for the March of Dimes.
“Students speaking out can be a powerful influence for change,” Jacobs said.
Another speaker, Roel Adamson, spoke about the importance of embracing diversity and overcoming life’s obstacles.
One of the hardest aspects of having a disability is overcoming others’ reactions and behaviors.
“When talking to someone who has a disability, speak normally,” Adamson said. “Shouting, baby-talking and talking to a person with a disability as if they were stupid reveals the speaker’s level of ignorance. For example, people have shared with me that they will try to compensate for their discomfort of my disability by changing their own speech. However, it gives me a headache when they shout, it makes me laugh at them when they baby talk, and when they treat me like I am stupid, I get frustrated. Then I must try to show who I am not. So instead of getting to know me, I am trying to prove to them who I am not: not deaf, not a baby, not dumb.”
The conference brought together people who want to be self-advocates along with people already self-advocating.
“You may not have a disability, but each of us has abilities on which we can build to not only improve our lives but the lives of those around us,” Adamson said.