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Mentors: The Crucial Elements in Self-Advocacy Training

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Braille Forum, Vol. XXXIX, No. 5, November 2000.

When educators and trainers seek to develop curricula for training people with disabilities in the skills of self-advocacy, the importance of including positive role models in any anticipated training program cannot be overstated. The influence of a successful mentor can make all the difference in a person's life decisions and the paths down which those decisions may lead. We are all affected by our life experiences, and by the people we see playing their various roles in our perceptions of the world.

Before the advent of the civil rights movement, a person of African-American descent was unlikely to be seen in a role of authority. In our society and in the world depicted by the media of the times, people of color were portrayed in largely menial roles--providing services to their white authority figures.

Before the women's liberation movement of the 1970's, women were primarily depicted as wives and mothers, seldom if ever as leaders, corporate executives, doctors, lawyers. All such roles were filled by men, and the society accepted this so-called "norm" as appropriate. Anyone who broke out of the mold was considered strange and unseemly.

Nowadays, because of our exposure to positive role models, we see African-Americans as Congressional representatives, military commanders, city and state leaders and in many other key, successful roles in our society. We are also seeing women succeeding in many careers formerly thought to be "appropriate" only for men. Women are now Congressional representatives, mayors, governors, lawyers, doctors, pilots--and the possibilities seem unlimited! All this came about because women have had positive role models who blazed untrodden trails.

In the world of disability, including blindness, sometimes the unintentional barriers that are constructed by families and others who provide custodial care can limit growth and potential fulfillment. The all-encompassing personal care which is sometimes provided by well-intentioned able-bodied providers speaks to helplessness, encourages dependence and cannot possibly coexist with an independent mentor or positive role model. When we see someone who is just as disabled as we are doing things which do not fit conveniently into our learned model of helplessness or dependency, then we may begin to re-think our perceptions of what is possible--and dream of being and doing more! First we dream. Then, we can become the dream.

I can speak of these things because of my own life experiences: I have lived the traditional female role and then--because of positive role models--emerged to become the most authentic me. As a blind woman, I initially bought into the helpless and ashamed self-image, but with the influence of positive mentors, I discovered the part of my humanity which had been suppressed and discouraged and now lives in the sunlight.

Therefore, I believe that any training in self-advocacy cannot rely upon an able-bodied professional telling a person with a disability, "just do it." The most successful training in self-advocacy has been accomplished through the peer-support methodology. This approach allows people with disabilities, including people who are blind and visually impaired, to interact with people with like disabilities who are successful self advocates. Shared bonds of similar life experiences and comparable struggles can facilitate a powerful and motivating training experience. Successful visually impaired mentors can acquaint visually impaired people with the very possibilities of daring to dream, and with the prospect of translating these dreams into individualized realities!