I have always had a fear of the unknown, especially when I thought about why I should stay in my hometown and not even leave my country. I know it’s because of the reliable relationship in the community that allowed me independence. I knew everyone at the shopping center where I got most of my things from with ease so I was never scared while carrying out my activities, I had my amazing best friends and work colleagues who were there to motivate me, and I could easily schedule my own checkups at the orthopedic hospital incase my prosthesis leg needed maintenance. All these allowed me more independence and freedom. But was I really challenging the status quo and seeing things from a different angle?
My selection for the Professional Fellows Program (PFP-IDE) placed me at the University of Vermont (Center on Disability and Community Inclusion). Vermont presented me with an opportunity to leave my comfort zone. The weather in Vermont is very different from the one back home in Kenya. As I write this, I am all covered up from head to toe because the temperatures outside are a clear indication that winter is here with us which I look forward to because the only snow I have ever experienced was in the movies. Vermont is a beautiful state with amazing scenery especially now during fall when leaves on trees are changing colors, mountains covered in snow and households decorated ready for Halloween which takes place on the last day of October every year.
On my first week, I attended a two-day workshop on National Organizational Change Forum: Sheltered Workshop Conversion to Community Employment which took place in October 21-22, 2019 at Burlington, Vermont, which closed its last sheltered workshop for people with developmental disabilities in 2002. The Conference was organized by Professor Bryan Dague, my host mentor from the Center on Disability and Community Inclusion, in collaboration with the Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE), which advocates for inclusive employment throughout the United States. Stakeholders from different states and organizations were in attendance to share their experiences and the work they do to provide inclusive employment for persons with intellectual and development disabilities (IDD) in panel discussions and breakout sessions. The Conference gave me a glimpse on the pros and cons of sheltered workshops (segregation from the community) to community-based employment (integration into the community) for persons with disabilities in the U.S., especially when self-advocates shared personal experiences when it came to employment.
Elizabeth with Eileen Casey, Executive Coordinator, Governor of Vermont’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.
Self-employed Persons with Intellectual Disabilities were also present to showcase their products they made with assistance from assistive technology. Thanks to innovative assistive technology, persons with significant disabilities have been able to communicate and do lots of things that they were limited to before. The Conference ended with a Film Screening of Intelligent Lives, a documentary by Dan Habib and a panel discussion by self-advocates.
The following day there was a welcome reception organized by the Center. Everyone was around to meet me from Professors to Directors. In addition to from making me feel welcomed, they shared matters pertaining disability rights in Vermont. Vermont was the second state after New Hampshire to close disability institutions in the U.S. That evening we attended the Green Mountain Self Advocates Gala Dinner to celebrate 25 years of its existence. What I loved about the Green Mountain Self Advocates was that it is an organization run and managed by people with developmental disabilities with support from allies in the community. This was a good example of the “nothing about us without us” principle. The organization’s aim was to create public awareness from their lived experiences. Being in existence for 25 years is no joke!
A key takeaway from my first week in Vermont is that when persons with disabilities (especially ones with unseen disabilities) are integrated into employment, they can make decisions for themselves and have a sense of responsibility which is what I aim for in my Inclusive Disability Employment Project. The world would for sure be a better place if we were all inclusive.
Well, leaving my comfort zone wasn’t so bad after all.
Elizabeth Mang’eni is from Nairobi, Kenya. She is a Trade Development Officer at Kenya’s Ministry of Industry, Trade and Cooperatives and is spending her PFP-IDE Fellowship at the University of Vermont CDCI in Burlington, Vermont.