During the six-month planning phase the Hogg Foundation gave the eight-grantee organizations of the Harris County Transition Age Youth and Families Initiative, Disability Rights Texas formed a partnership with HCC’s VAST Academy. The VAST Academy is a program HCC offers specifically to students with disabilities to help assist with their transition into adulthood. During this planning phase Disability Rights hosted a focus group at VAST and the students in attendance provided helpful advice and guidance, which helped create and mold the idea for the special project Disability Rights developed for the Initiative: The Know Your Rights! Campaign.
The Know Your Rights! Campaign consists of training series offered separately to Transition Age Youth in Harris County living with a mental health diagnosis and their Caregivers informing them about their legal rights and protections. These series focus on helping the youth and caregivers develop effective self-advocacy skills to advocate for the services and supports meant to help for a more successful transition into adulthood. The VAST Academy offered to host the pilot series of the campaign for youth.
Before the official series began, Shiloh, the attorney hired to work on this initiative, and I gave a training on voting rights in October of 2014 to the students with the advent of the gubernatorial election. During the training, the students demonstrated an aptitude and passion for becoming empowered self-advocates. The students’ innate passion only grew once the official series began in March. After learning about the Olmstead case, and all of the subsequent events leading to the inception of laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the students not only understood the importance of comprehending their legal rights, but also began implementing all the skills they learned during the training series into their everyday lives.
These youth were so empowered, they were not only adamant about advocating for their own personal rights, but also for the rights of their peers. Their self-advocacy was so extensive, members HCC’s administration commented on the effect these trainings were having across the campus, and this was only halfway through the series. By the end of the series the VAST Academy’s director and Transition Specialist expressed, in their thank you e-mails, how all the “students who attended [were] well on their way to becoming more of self-advocate[s].” While receiving this positive feedback from those two school administrators who work so closely with the students was humbling, I was truly at a loss for words when Khiara Pollock, one our star students, wrote:
“I feel better about my future now that I took the classes. I have learned about the laws passed and the Disability Rights Act. I learned about Ticket to work and SSI. But what I learned about the most is my rights. I learned what they are and how they can help me. I learned that entrepreneurs with special needs do hold jobs and have success. I look forward to my future. Thank you so much Disability Rights Texas for educating me about my future.”
I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to the students of VAST Academy for participating in our pilot series for youth, and for being such a tremendous help in forging Disability Rights Texas’ project for the Initiative. Your input and participation has helped shape this project, which will hopefully have a profound impact on the lives of other transition age youth for the duration of this Initiative and years to come. For that, you have my utmost respect. Thank you.