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.

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