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  August 26, 2002

Leadership Forum for Students with
Disabilities a Confidence Booster
By Sherry Fisher

Kendall Hinman, a 17-year-old senior from Madison, has dyslexia. Andrew Cruz, a high school senior from Newtown, has difficulty with auditory and visual processing.

Hinman and Cruz were two of the 36 high school students who participated in the fourth annual Connecticut Youth Leadership Forum for Students with Disabilities at the Storrs campus, July 29 through August 1.

Hinman said she had felt like "the only one" with dyslexia. Cruz "wasn't comfortable" talking about his disability. After the program, both students said they gained confidence and felt better about themselves.

The four-day program was designed to help students with disabilities enhance their strengths and abilities, and develop leadership skills. Some 24 staffers helped with the program this year, most of whom were volunteers.

"All the students have the potential to be really good leaders, despite some of the struggles they may have," said Karen Halliday, an education

consultant at the state Department of Education in the bureau of special education and pupil services who is co-chairperson of the forum. She said many of the students have learning disabilities that are not obvious, such as difficulties with reading, writing, and auditory or visual processing.

Some of the objectives of the forum were to teach students how to set and prioritize goals, make effective decisions, increase self-awareness, build self-confidence, explore leadership styles, and foster self-advocacy. Participants were chosen on the basis of their contribution to their schools and communities, and their leadership potential.

"This is the kind of initiative that truly enhances opportunities for students with disabilities," said Donna Korbel, director of UConn's Center for Students with Disabilities. Korbel, a member of the forum's executive planning committee, was instrumental in bringing the summer program to campus. She said the accessibility of South Campus, where the program was held, made UConn an appropriate venue.

Many students left the program armed with greater confidence and self-awareness.

"I've gotten a lot of strength and I've overcome fears," said Stephanie Barker, a high school senior from Wolcott who has Attention Deficit Disorder. "The forum has made it easier to understand myself and other people."

Hinman said the forum opened her up to accepting others for their strengths and weaknesses.

As a follow-up to the forum, each student was asked to develop a personal leadership plan to enhance the lives of people with disabilities in their school or community.

Barker said her leadership plan "would probably be about students who don't get the accommodations they need. Some teachers are fine, but others don't listen," she said. "The educators don't teach the teachers about individual differences."

Despite her disability, Barker has made honor roll every year of high school. "I push myself to the limit," she said.

Volunteers who worked with the students observed positive changes in their outlook.

"They leave here with a tremendous sense of their own worth," said volunteer John Gentile. "When you see them come in and see them leave, you see two different people."

Rose McGurkin-Fuhr, a transition coordinator in special education at Simsbury High School, had a similar observation: "They open themselves up," she said. "They learn about their strengths and how they need to become their own advocates. They learn about their rights and laws, which helps them to be successful."

The Youth Leadership Forum is sponsored by the Governor's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, public and private agencies, and private-sector businesses.

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