East Bethel mother advocating for the developmentally disabled

As the parent of a daughter with Down syndrome and a son with autism spectrum disorder, Laura McCarthy of East Bethel has grown accustomed to advocating for her children to have access to opportunities afforded to other children.

Left to right: Kacie, Laura and Neil McCarthy of East Bethel. Laura recently completed a Partners in Policymaking course that gave helpful tips on how to advocate for positive change for people with developmental disabilities. Photo by Eric Hagen
Left to right: Kacie, Laura and Neil McCarthy of East Bethel. Laura recently completed a Partners in Policymaking course that gave helpful tips on how to advocate for positive change for people with developmental disabilities. Photo by Eric Hagen

McCarthy recently completed a training program sponsored by the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities to better understand the history of the disability and self-advocacy movements and to find out ways to keep change going in a positive direction.

The Partners in Policymaking program has been around for 25 years, but the case worker McCarthy works with on behalf of her nine-year-old daughter Kacie and eight-year-old son Neil had never heard of this program and thus McCarthy was not aware of it. She was attending The Autism Society of Minnesota convention in May 2011 when she discovered it existed.

McCarthy is very thankful to have found out about this program, which is funded by a federal grant and charges no fees for participants. She will be meeting with her case worker to discuss handing out pamphlets about the program to other parents who may be interested in enrolling.

“It is a one-stop shop of everything I know,” McCarthy said.

The classes McCarthy took were on one Friday and Saturday each month from September 2011 to May.

Staff from the Minnesota Department of Education, along with elected officials at the county, state and federal level gave presentations to the 40 people involved in the courses to talk more about the history of the self-advocacy movement, inclusive education, supported living and what steps individuals can take if they want governments to make policy changes.

For example, the 40 people broke up into groups of five and went before a panel of retired state legislators to go through a mock state committee hearing.

McCarthy played the role of a school superintendent and thus had to present information that would be pertinent to the topic at hand from a school district’s perspective. The topic they addressed was bullying. One participant played the role of a parent whose child had been bullied. Another was a child who had been bullied. One person was a school teacher.

Although McCarthy is not a school administrator, the purpose of this exercise was to become familiar with parliamentary procedures and how these hearings are conducted, she said.

“It was really a good exercise because then we’re much more confident,” McCarthy said. “Now we want to do a real one.”

Bullying in school was one topic presenters covered in class, but they also talked about the importance of having a plan once their children are done with school. McCarthy intends to engage employers and set up tours of factories and offices for older special needs kids so they can learn more about potential job options.

“We don’t want them to graduate to a couch,” McCarthy said.

Career planning for her children is well down the road for McCarthy because Kacie is just going into fourth grade and Neil is going into third grade, both at Cedar Creek Community School in the St. Francis School District. One of her main goals at this time is trying to get her children more time with the other students during the school day.

During the last school year, McCarthy calculated that they each spent about 25 percent of their time with the regular student body, mostly during art and music classes. She would like them to become involved in the regular math curriculum because she thinks the hands-on exercises that other students go through would be helpful for Kacie and Neil.

The Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities introduced the Partners in Policymaking program in 1987. Since then, over 800 Minnesotans have completed the program and over 16,000 have participated in similar Partners programs around the world.

“This program is based on the belief that systems change is best brought about through the efforts of those most affected by them and we seek to arm them with the tools needed to be successful in the public policy arena,” said Colleen Wieck, Governor’s Council executive director.

The next course will take place between September 2012 and May 2013. The eight two-day sessions are Sept. 28, 29, Oct. 26, 27, Nov. 16, 17, Jan. 11, 12, Feb. 22, 23, March 10, 11, April 12, 13 and May 17, 18.

There is no cost to individuals selected to be in the Partners program. Meals are provided and mileage is reimbursed. Overnight accommodations are provided for those who drive a distance to attend. All sessions are at the Minneapolis Airport Marriott in Bloomington.

The deadline to apply for this course is Friday, July 20.

For more information, visit www.mngts.org/partnersinpolicymaking or contact Carol Schoeneck at GTS Educational Events at 651-222-7409, extension 205 or 1-800-569-6878, extension 205 if you live outside the metro area. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

Eric Hagen is at [email protected]