“My Experience with Disability and Leadership”, by Lillian Sellers

 “My Experience with Disability and Leadership”, by Lillian Sellers

On her blog, Lillian Sellers expresses that confidence is more important than anything else in the transition process, and shares that it’s so important for schools to include more self-advocacy training for students and presuming competency training for teachers.

My name is Lillian Sellers, and I am a senior graduating from high school in just a few weeks. My high school trajectory was somewhat different from that of my peers. Due to my educational background, I am a firm believer that leadership and success look different for everyone. This was partially attributable to my disability, but it was also due to my awareness of the right opportunities for me to learn and grow. When I was a full-time student at my school, I often felt out of place and as though I was losing out on certain key elements of the high school experience that driven honor students were expected to have. I certainly didn’t feel included with my classmates when I had to miss class for physical therapy or take courses online prior to the pandemic to accommodate my fatigue. I had to learn on my own that it was okay to take a different path to the same goal.

When I ran for various leadership positions within my school, despite my grades, volunteer, and work experience, I was still overlooked by my classmates and teachers. Certain teachers would fail to accommodate my need to leave early from classes in order to get to the next class because my wheelchair would get totally lost in crowds in the hallway. I would occasionally have to skip entire assignments because they were inaccessible, such as an earth science experiments outside or calculating velocity by throwing a football in math class. In my eyes these would have been easy activities to substitute with a more accessible alternative, but in all fairness I have been accommodating my condition all my life. However, one might be surprised at how shaken some teachers become at having to change the class activity for “just one student.” Despite the pushback I still received good grades and participated as much as I was able to in the community. Even then, no matter what I did, my mobility aid and medical needs still seemed to get in the way of being a leader. I never felt like I belonged in a group, whether it was because I lost the popularity vote for class president or because I couldn’t always stay after school for student council meetings. It wasn’t until I began looking for opportunities outside of school, I realized I could be a leader and help people.

This year, I took part in an internship program. I was granted credits for collaborating with an organization and I was required to provide weekly evaluations of my progress. I chose to work with the Pennsylvania Youth Leadership Network as I was a new governing board member at the start of the school year. “The mission of the Pennsylvania Youth Leadership Network is to coordinate a network that is led and driven by inclusive organizations of youth and young adults with and without disabilities across Pennsylvania. PYLN promotes advocacy, self-determination, leadership, empowerment, and service learning in the areas of transition, employment, education, and community engagement.” Being an intern helped me with learning more about the organization as well as life skills that could help me in my future career. Not only was I a valuable member of a team despite my disability, my perspective as a disabled person was important and needed in many conversations. I believe it would be extremely beneficial to students of all abilities if schools promoted activities and services outside of the school district.

This year’s internship journey was life-changing for me! I became more confident in myself and my capabilities, such as public speaking and self-advocacy. This year, I was able to meet with so many wonderful people using Zoom, who I would not have been able to speak with otherwise. Working with professionals who do a lot of work with disabled young people, but who don’t normally have the chance to chat with actual individuals was really insightful and helpful for all parties. If an organization offers transition or other student services, they should be sure to consult with actual young people to make sure they are offering things that are helpful, engaging, and students really would enjoy participating in. I often believe many students, like me, are hesitant to search for places who advertise to disabled students. We don’t want to believe that we’re different. We’re always told to overcome obstacles and put ourselves out there, even though it’s inaccessible and uncomfortable. Students, and particularly parents, are fearful of what recognizing disability entails, especially at a young age. It is frequently implied that if we are proud of our disabilities and do not want to disguise it, we can not fit in. Blending in, in my opinion, has never resulted in real acceptance.

When I joined the Pennsylvania Youth Leadership Network in my junior year, I immediately felt welcomed. They welcome youth from all sorts of backgrounds and prioritize self-advocacy and community collaboration above all else. They were created with people with disabilities in mind because we are frequently excluded from leadership opportunities. Regardless of the fact that I was the youngest member when I joined the governing board, I was trusted and my perspective was appreciated. Finding somewhere you feel comfortable sharing your opinion and know you will be respected makes all the difference. Though this year hasn’t been easy and I’ve made many mistakes, anyone can tell you I’ve also made great strides. I used to be so nervous when it came to planning my own future. I was so worried about saying something wrong at my own IEP meetings, but in reality you can’t say anything wrong about your own life. Now I’ve come so far as to be hosting webinars about advice for students attending their first IEP meetings.

What I’ve found is that confidence is more important than anything else in the transition process. I know I’m not alone in saying when I started my transition to college, which I will complete this fall, I felt so lost and so behind. My parents and I felt as if we were entering a whole new world where everyone spoke a different language. Now I feel like I can be a translator for other young people in that position. The biggest thing that helped me back then was asking questions and talking to people with disabilities. It was far more beneficial for me to speak with someone that had been through it before than a professional who only uses lengthy, confusing language. This isn’t to say that learning the exact terms isn’t a good thing, it can just be pretty overwhelming at times. Part of why I feel comfortable transitioning now is that I was slowly immersed into the world of disability services through this internship. Sadly, this opportunity is not available to everyone and not all students seek out programs like this. That’s why I think it’s so important for schools to include more self-advocacy training for students and presuming competency training for teachers. Even though I have taken honors classes and college classes in high school people still spoke over me, and I wasn’t encouraged to run my own IEP meeting until my last year of high school. Even though my school didn’t set me up for their definition of success, I still accomplished many things I’m proud of. Through trial and error, and learning new things I found what works for me. This internship helped me learn so many new skills and gain much more confidence. If a student out there finds an opportunity to succeed in their own way, encourage them to go for it!

Lillian Sellers

About PYLN 

The mission of the Pennsylvania Youth Leadership Network is to coordinate a network that is led and driven by inclusive organizations of youth and young adults with and without disabilities across Pennsylvania. PYLN promotes advocacy, self-determination, leadership, empowerment, and service learning in the areas of transition, employment, education, and community engagement.​”


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