Students with disabilities can fulfill their potential

A half-century ago, Michael Harrington published The Other America, a compelling book that brought national attention to the problem of the invisible poor among us — in cities, Appalachia, and among all ethnic groups. It helped awaken a nation.

Today, in South Florida, we face a different challenge: Thousands of young adults remain largely invisible, inadequately trained, or simplistically stereotyped. About 3,000 a year are graduated with Special Diplomas from Miami-Dade Public Schools, but have inadequate resources to grow beyond that. We, and these young adults, are the poorer for this overall neglect of their civil rights and continuing education.

So many employable young adults with intellectual disabilities often fall between the bureaucratic cracks. For those over 22 years of age, the little yellow school bus no longer arrives at their front door. So many of them sit home alone, watching television or the Internet, lacking viable job training opportunities, a social life, or much connection to the natural world.

Research, such as that produced by the University of Miami’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities and the examples of people like Temple Grandin (who recently spoke at UM), underscore the underappreciated abilities of those with disabilities. Other states provide far more attention, resources, and creative programs to address the needs of these young people, giving them the chance to fulfill their potential. Some hope comes from the just-finished legislative session in Florida where several new programs were funded. But the need is way beyond that.

Local and state governmental bureaucratic categories often constrain the potential for human growth among this population. Labels such as employment training and adult day care (for lower functioning adults) sometimes leave families with limited options to stimulate broader human potential for those with intellectual disabilities. The Medicaid Waiver program, for one example, has up to a 10-year waiting list for services for those who have already qualified. What are our real priorities? The owner of Sun Life stadium gets front-page attention and countless hours of the time by public officials in their quest for hundreds of millions in public funds to upgrade their privately owned business while the social needs of so many powerless people remain ignored and unmet.

We need many more programs blending employment training, continuing education, social enrichment, and independent life skills. One approach that would work is this: Build a curriculum based on natural world experiences through such fields as culinary arts and organic gardening (and other items related to community wellness) plus health and nutrition, marine, weather studies and the expressive arts. What will be achieved will be an interest in learning, training for meaningful jobs and entrepreneurial skills — and diminishing prejudices vis-à-vis students with disabilities.

We need businesses to be more sensitive to the unique special abilities (and sometimes the limits) of employable young adults with disabilities.

Nature Links for Lifelong Learning was originally formed to address the needs of 18-22 year olds through a Miami Dade County Public Schools program known as Project Bridge. Located at Shake-a-Leg Miami since 2007, it has proven successful and continues.

The focus now is on young adults who have aged out of the public school system. Nature Links shortly will start a five-day-a-week culinary arts program in partnership with Miami Dade College’s Miami Culinary Institute. It will combine job training in culinary arts with an allied focus on organic gardening, native-habitat restoration, nutrition and community wellness. Our Saturdays By the Bay program at Virginia Key Beach Park — June 1 to Aug. 17 — will provide a second program of practical experiences in marine studies, cooking, gardening and island ecology. This can and should expand with various partners.

Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods tells a compelling account of what he labeled the “nature-deficit disorder” in our children. These children are so often cut off from the natural world, fearful of forests from what they see on TV, and unable to appreciate such simple processes as the growth of plants. With the aid of technology, we believe the curiosity of young people can be reawakened to the natural world. That means engaging them in videography and website programming and by starting small businesses (with guidance).

The issue is not merely the impact of such invisibility on young adults with disabilities, but on the rest of us, too.

Gregory Bush is executive director of Nature Links and a history professor at the University of Miami. David Lawrence Jr. is president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation and Education and Community Leadership Scholar at the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development.

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

Tony Lesesne


    Tony Lesesne: Overkill, and an apology

    Yes, it happens in South Florida, too — and it shouldn’t. Black men pulled over, needlessly hassled by police officers who give the rest of their colleagues a bad name, who make no distinction when a suspect has no other description than ‘black male,’ who harass residents because they can. A North Miami Beach officer pulls over a black man in a suit and tie — and behind the wheel of an Audi that simply had to be stolen, right? In another Miami-Dade city, an officer demands that an African-American man installing a vegetable garden justify why he has a shovel and seedlings. Detained for possession of cilantro? Here are five South Floridians who tell of their experiences in this community and beyond, years ago, and all too recently.

Delrish Moss


    Delrish Moss: Out after dark

    “I was walking up Seventh Avenue, just shy of 14th street. I was about 17 and going home from my job. I worked at Biscayne Federal Bank after school. The bank had a kitchen, and I washed the dishes. A police officer gets out of his car. He didn’t say anything. He came up and pushed me against a wall, frisked me, then asked what I was doing walking over here after dark. Then he got into his car and left. I never got a chance to respond. I remember standing there feeling like my dignity had been taken with no explanation. I would have felt better about that incident had I gotten some sort of dialogue. I had not had any encounters with police.


    Bill Diggs: Hurt officer’s feelings

    “I’m the first generation in my family to go to college, and if I wanted to do nothing else, I wanted to make my mom happy. I was living for my parents, I wanted to be that guy, I wanted to go to work and not have to put on steel-toe boots. And here I am in Atlanta, I have finally grown to a particular level of affluence. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was a college kid, wearing a suit, driving a nice BMW going to work everyday. Can’t beat that. I would leave my house, drive up Highway 78, the Stone Mountain area, grab some coffee, go to work. So on this particular morning, there’s a cop who’s rustling up this homeless guy outside the gas station where I was filling up. I’m shaking my head, the cop looks at me. This homeless guy is there every morning. I get in my car and on to the expressway. The police officer comes shooting up behind me. I doing 65, 70. He gets up behind me, I notice he’s following me. I get in one lane, he gets in the lane, I get in another lane, he gets in that lane. He finally flips his lights on, he comes up to the car. I’ve been pulled over for speeding before, I know the drill. Got my hands up here, don’t want to get shot, and I think he’s going to say what I’ve heard before: ‘License and registration, please.’ He says ‘Get out of the car!’ and he reaches in and grabs me by my shirt. He says, ‘So you’re a smart ass, huh?’ Finally he says, ‘License and registration.’ I tell him it’s in the car. He says, ‘Get it for me!’ He goes back to his car, comes back and asks, ‘So where did you get the car from?’ I say ‘It’s a friend of mine’s.” He says, ‘Is it stolen? What are you doing driving your friend’s car?’ I finally asked, ‘Is there a reason you stopped me? You followed me, what’s up, man?’ He says, ‘I’m going to let you go with a warning, but if you see me doing what I’ve got to do for my job, don’t you ever f---ing worry about it.”

Miami Herald

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