Special-needs youth gain bipartisan inspiration, guidance

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 05-Jul-2010

In a recent slice of “real world” discussion and learning that mirrored events in this year’s legislative session, students working through the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council (OKDDC) learned about the law-making process during a week-long session held last month.

Concluding activities as part of the Youth Leadership Forum, the young people heard from a bipartisan group of government officials, studied public policy and interacted with each other. Time at the Capitol in Oklahoma City echoed what transpired when legislators grappled with special needs scholarships this year.

After hearing from a bipartisan group of legislators over the closing two days of the forum, the young people met in the chambers of the state House of Representatives, to debate House Bill 3393, deemed the “Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program.”
Sitting in the seats of elected officials, requesting recognition from a  presiding officer before speaking, and addressing one another with respect, the students challenged premises and frequently sparred over  provisions allowing tax-financed scholarships to special needs children.

After advocacy and opposition — floor statements, debate, questions and answers on both sides — the young legislators approved the bill, 14-10.

The close division among members of the Youth Leadership Forum mirrored the narrow division the legislation provoked in the real Legislature, where it passed the House 54-46 and the Senate 25-22. Governor Brad Henry signed it.

Although debate on H.B. 3393 was of interest to CapitolBeatOK, it was just one segment of two days full of civics lessons and interaction with well-know state leaders.

In response to question from CapitolBeatOK, Director Ann Trudgeon of the council describes it as “a small state agency. We are authorized by Executive Order of the Governor, administratively supported by DHS [the Department of Human Services], and almost entirely federally-funded.

“Developmental Disabilities Councils are in every state and most U.S. Territories, and we are established for the purpose of advocating for improved services and supports for persons with developmental disabilities. I think of Councils as ‘research and development’ for public and private entities wishing to meet the needs of persons with developmental disabilities and their families.”

The Oklahoma council was established by an executive order of the state’s governor in 1973, and renewed by every chief executive since then. The council is not a service provider, but “has assisted thousands of Oklahomans to live, work, play, learn and worship in their own homes and in their own neighborhoods.” Former state Rep. Mark Liotta is chairman of the council.

Trudgeon said councils around the nation watch each other for “innovative program and project ideas.” California originated the “Youth Leadership Forum,” which developed “as a means to address some basic needs of students with disabilities – namely, limited focus on transition from high school to adulthood, and all that that entails.”

Trudgeon said, “Advocates for people with disabilities believe that too often youth with disabilities are only focused on the next year – not the big picture of life. The Youth Leadership Forum seeks to compel students with disabilities to take action and responsibility for their futures.”

In a week-long program, she said, “we work with students on college and career exploration, becoming involved in the development of their IEPs (Individualized Education Plans), understanding and embracing their disability and learning about ‘disability’ as a culture, learning about resources in their communities (generic and specialized) so they can lead independent lives, and becoming more involved in their communities — through volunteerism and civic involvement.”

Youth Leadership Forums have been held in Oklahoma since 2004. Focus of the program is a week on a state college campus. According to OKDDC materials, the week covers “leadership, assistive technology, independent living, higher education, career development options and the Oklahoma legislative process.” 

CapitolBeatOK witnessed a portion of the Youth Leadership Forum’s annual Capitol Day. One guest speaker was state Rep. Ben Sherrer, a Democrat from Pryor Creek. Focused on legislative process, Trudgeon said, “He presented the topic beautifully and was impressed by the questions our youth asked.”

After learning about law making, students were introduced to “the highly topical and fairly controversial House Bill 3393. After the bill was explained, the youth broke into two groups – pro and con – and worked on their presentations at the Capitol for the following day.”

Students in the “pro” group selected a bill author, who was “prepped” to present the bill to fellow “legislators” and be prepared to answer questions.

Trudgeon outlined the counselors’ part this way: “We gave both groups sample questions, but also encouraged development of their own questions about the bill. Additionally, we gave each group talking points, which they turned into debate statements. Both groups developed debate points other than those we presented.”

In the morning, state Rep. Jason Nelson, an Oklahoma City answered questions about his bill, H.B. 3393. Trudgeon observed, “We’ve always used real bills for these sessions, but this was the first time we had a legislative author make a presentation to the students.” State Rep. Anastasia Pittman, an Oklahoma City Democrat and a co-author of Nelson’s bill, later witnessed closing debate on the measure.

Trudgeon said a highlight of the day was a meeting the young people had at the Blue Room with Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, a Democrat. Trudgeon told CapitolBeatOK she experienced a preface to the floor debate that came later.

Before Askins entered the room, Trudgeon sat with the student “author” of H.B. 3393. The lad “grabbed my hand, and with tears in his eyes told me he was incredibly nervous about standing before his peers and presenting his bill. He asked me what would happen if he made a mistake while making his presentation. I asked him what happened when he made mistakes in other aspects of his life, and he replied, ‘People make fun of me.’”

Trudgeon reports the young man is an “out-going, seemingly very self-assured young man. He was always the first to volunteer to help, he made it a point to speak with and get to know all his peers at YLF [Youth Leadership Forum], and he was generally interested in all that was going on during YLF.”

Surprised by his worries, Trudgeon reports she “assured him that all people make mistakes, and all each of us can do is move forward. I gave him a couple of suggestions” on what to do if he made a mistake during presentation.

Then, the lieutenant governor entered the room. She “addressed the very same issue in her talk with the youth.” Naturally, she said, “That helped quite a bit.”

Trudgeon suggested the young man ask that Rep. Nelson sit nearby during discussion of the bill, “in case he had any questions … he was not able to answer. Rep. Nelson, of course, was very pleased to do so.” Although the boy “was visibly nervous, he introduced the bill and was able to very successfully answer questions.”

Each student explored the Capitol, meeting with legislators when possible but in all cases hand delivering personal notes to the elected officials. Several legislators had returned to the Capitol to be available. Trudgeon said many of the lawmakers had certificates prepared ahead of time, waiting in their offices when the young people dropped off their notes. Members of Askins staff, Nelson and state Rep. Lewis Moore, a Republican from Arcadia, joined the students for lunch.

Public speaking is a key goal at Capitol Day, and Trudgeon said, “we were pleased with the efforts of our very nervous youth – the House Floor can be pretty intimidating!”

Concerning debate and discussion on H.B. 3393, Trudgeon said, “We encouraged each to vote his/her conscience based on what they’d read and learned – and not with reference to how they debated. Several ‘crossed over’ and voted opposite of how they debated, which made me very proud.”

Concluding Capitol Day, students stopped at Progressive Independence, an Independent Living Center in Norman, on their way “home” to Chickasha. After dinner at the University of Sciences and Arts of Oklahoma, home of this year’s forum, the students discussed and processed their day until 9 p.m.

Trudgeon told CapitolBeatOK the serious day concluded with “the mother of all water gun fights – these are, after all, kids. And that, perhaps, is our biggest lesson. It’s not about disability – it’s about being who you are and making yourself and your life the best you can.”