By Amanda Dyslin
The Free Press
Since birth Melanie Davis has been at the receiving end of both direct and indirect prejudice and ignorance about developmental disabilities.
Direct: being told by a high school administrator that, because she had cerebral palsy, it didn’t matter if she received her high school diploma because she wouldn’t amount to anything.
Indirect: A few years ago, when living with her parents in Jasper, there was a lack of sidewalks, making it difficult for Davis to get around in her wheelchair. Town officials requested Davis use the streets.
But even after 26 years living with a disability, a program called Partners in Policymaking opened her eyes to the cruelty and neglect that still exists today — disabled children locked in closets, hit in school and never taught to read.
“It shouldn’t be happening,” said Davis, 26, of Mankato. “It opened my mind up to the cruelties that do happen.”
A political science major, Davis’ goal is be an Americans with Disabilities Act consultant and advocate. She knows there are many obstacles in the way of changing public opinion and policy for the disabled, and she’s resigned herself to the belief that those changes won’t come in her lifetime.
But she credits the Partners in Policymaking for lighting a fire in her again to fight for change. She was one of several Mankatoans to graduate from the program in May.
“I’ve always been real proactive, but what it did was I was starting to lose that passion and that drive to keep going,” Davis said.
Held annually in the Twin Cities, the eight monthly two-day sessions of the Partners program cover the history of the disability and self-advocacy movements, inclusive education, supported living and avenues to influence county, state and federal legislative processes.
Sherie Wallace of The Wallace Group for Government Training Services, which serves the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, said the program’s 40-member audience is comprised of individuals with an array of disabilities as well as parents of young children with disabilities. Parents walk away with the mindset that they are less of a caregiver to their disabled children and more of a cheerleader.
“The expectation is that they become leaders in their own community, to really speak up to local school boards, local officials, and to present information or concerns from people with disabilities,” Wallace said. “These three people in Mankato definitely learned those skills.”
Wallace said the program drives home the point that all people have the right to have the career of their choice, to be educated and aspire to whatever lifestyle they choose. Davis plans to fight for all of those things, although she knows it will take a long time and a lot of voices to push the issues into the public conversation.
It’s difficult to imagine a world, she said, where being disabled doesn’t necessarily mean living in poverty. Some day maybe people with developmental disabilities can have assets and own their own homes, she said.
“I want to work with disabled individuals, to empower people and tell them, ‘You are capable.’ But I also want to work on the other side, the policy side. Policy affects the way we view ourselves,” she said. “Policy needs to change.”
Kari Fletcher is a mother of six, two children of which she adopted years ago. Siblings Ben and Anna Fletcher, now 14 and 10, were born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder or FASD. Challenges with the disorder tend to be poor impulse control, difficulty with abstract ideas, trouble with social skills, and problems with processing and understanding lessons in school, Fletcher said.
Fletcher has learned a tremendous amount about the disorder over the past few years, so much so that she educates about it on a national level. But she took Partners in Policymaking, graduating with Davis in May, because a friend highly recommended it.
“The Partners in Policymaking Program still was just incredible in helping me understand more about what I can hope for my children, and how I can support them,” Fletcher said. “They are citizens. They can have dreams. They can have jobs that I didn’t even dare hope for them.”
Fletcher got to know Davis during the program, and she hopes Davis will get to know Anna.
“She’s just a very strong, just an inspiring person,” Fletcher said.
Both Davis and Fletcher recommend the program to anyone. Parts are difficult to take, but the information is important for everyone to learn, they said.
“The first time we met last September, I went away completely overwhelmed because we talked about the history of how people with disabilities have been treated,” Fletcher said. “I almost couldn’t breathe listening to it.”
Fletcher also was inspired by a session given by Derrick Dufresne about “breaking out of the disability bubble.”
The Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities introduced the Partners in Policymaking program in 1987. More than 800 Minnesotans have completed the program.