Every Youth (with a Disability) Should be a Leader

I purposely didn't title this: "Every youth with a disability can be a leader" because that is not even something that needs consideration. But for the doubters out there: Every youth with a disability can be a leader because each one has probably experienced some kind of unknown or uncertainty, has probably been involved in many kinds of complex decision making, has probably known the effort it takes to get a message across. When I think about great leaders, like President Obama, and the youth leaders with disabilities I have hung around with -- those are some of the qualities both have in common.

Let's be clear right now: I am not saying that if you are a young person with a disability that automatically makes you a leader. Sitting in a wheelchair, using the handicap parking placard, having an IEP, or owning medical records thicker than the encyclopedia does not a leader make. 

One of the toughest parts about growing-up with a disability, for me, is its impact on my self-confidence. While having always been that yapping kid in class with one too many opinions, the one who never knew when to stop having side conversations with friends -- I think that as I was more aware of how different I was in comparison to my classmates, my self-confidence decreased. Maybe it was a part of the whole "growing-into-myself" phase, or the "finding-myself" thing.. but there was definitely a few years in high school where I made O.I. an excuse for what I couldn't do, or what I wasn't able to do. 
Take for instance running for Vice President of my class during my senior year of high school. It's horrifyingly embarrassing for me to think back to those 3min of a speech I made in front of the entire class. My entire speech was some kind of literary analogy for why I'd make a good VP because I knew how to drive an electric wheelchair (and I'm probably being harder on myself than what *actually* happened), but I remember afterwards that while many in the class complimented me on a well-written speech --  I didn't connect to why they should vote for me. 
Afterwards I went on to being another dork on the debate team, and fell in-line with the literary geeks of the school and was the Editor of the school paper and literary magazine. I became a leader in the areas that I was comfortable with, in the world of writing where I didn't have to try to "explain" my disability to my able-bodied classmates. My self-confidence then associated my strengths with one area, and my weaknesses were defined by that 3min incident, an instance that was probably only a big deal in my head nearly 8 years ago. 

In college this continued where I sought interests where my wheelchair was a non-issue, not even a blip on the minds of those I associated myself with: Student Government Association, or Students for Social Justice organization. The issues of human trafficking, female genital mutilation, hunger & homelessness, education reform, gender equality etc were so vast and global! And I felt comfortable speaking on them because they squashed the discomfort I had with my wheelchair completely out of the picture. When the student body or administrators of the (mostly female & liberally bent) university heard me speak about social justice issues, I think that my sense of self-confidence only became more lopsided. Many of those individuals in the audience were probably left with the impression wow a young idealist who doesn't let anything get in her way, and she really believes she's going to take over the world some day. 

They were right to some extent. I didn't let anything get in my way because I simply ignored what I *thought* would get in my way. I ignored it out of fear, out of shame, out of just not knowing how to deal with the formidable 'it.' For someone who had so many opinions about everything else, at the time my opinion of my disability was simply: ugh whatever, why does it matter? 

I'm not going to go into every single leadership opportunity I've been lucky to experience. But as I think back to my own evolving leadership skills, I realize that they've only gotten stronger as I become more comfortable with who I am and what I'm representing. 
I've been lucky to meet a whole bunch of young people with disabilities who are leaders both in and out of the disability community. I look up to them because they've been so patient as I scramble to catch-up, they've taught me that I can't envision a world of more acceptance if I can't accept myself, and  they're the ones who are ultimately challenging me to always be a better leader. 

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