Think College Policy Advocates: Helping Students Find Their Voice

The Disability Policy Seminar (DPS) is an annual conference that empowers disability advocates, professionals, and self-advocates from around the country to meet with each other and disability experts so that they can share their knowledge and experiences about federal disability policy and legislation. In 2019, AUCD and Think College started offering an opportunity for students with intellectual and developmental disability an opportunity to learn about policy, including participating in DPS in a meaningful way. The Think College Policy Advocates (TCPA) experience helps college students with disabilities build their leadership skills so they can advocate for themselves and others more powerfully.

Think College Policy Advocates who attend DPS take part in two days of training and learning, attending a choice of panels and special events on important issues that affect the lives of people with disabilities. These include housing, education, health care, transportation, social security, supplemental security income (SSI), and home and community-based services (HBCS). DPS attendees can also join special sessions to learn about policy priorities that Congress and the White House are pursuing related inclusive postsecondary education. The TCPA experience culminates with Hill visits where Think College Policy Advocates can speak directly with their state representatives about the issues that are important to them.

The Advocates

Hannah Humes
The Think College Policy Advocates program lets current and former students at inclusive postsecondary programs have a terrific experience attending the Disability Policy Seminar. Hannah Humes, a self-advocate who attends Next Steps at Vanderbilt University, says she came to the 2021 Disability Policy Seminar (held virtually due to COVID-19) to learn more about policy issues that affect her day-to-day life.

“I came to DPS because I was interested in learning more about government, especially housing and transportation. I want to keep learning more about that, because those are the biggest barriers in my life.”

Hannah, who was chosen to be a Think College Policy Advocate and attended DPS 2021 virtually, attended sessions about community living issues that students with disabilities face, what Congress is planning to do, and how self-advocates like her can make their voices heard. Both Hannah and Next Steps Director of Career Development, Megan Macon, got to advocate directly to staff who work for the member of Congress and share Hannah’s story, as well as those of her peers, which improves lawmakers’ understanding of inclusive postsecondary issues and the effect of programs like hers.

Kenneth Kelty
Self-advocates who have completed inclusive postsecondary education programs also take part in the Think College Policy Advocates and DPS since it gives them a platform to speak to lawmakers, network with other self-advocates, and improve their understanding of disability policy issues so they can represent themselves effectively in the future. Kenneth Kelty, who graduated from Western Carolina University Participant (UP) Program, has since gone on to work for the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) and is building his career in self-advocacy. Kenneth found DPS to be a great opportunity, since he not only got to speak to his Representative and Senators but discovered new tools that self-advocates like him can apply to educate and influence local policymakers about inclusive programs and what students and graduates with disabilities need. Kenneth notes that he especially learned a lot about

“…how to stay involved in disability advocacy in the long term. The long-term resources and information about how to follow up with my local officials were really useful”.

Christi Kasa
DPS is also very informative to disability professionals, including advocates who support or advise students with disabilities, manage inclusive postsecondary programs, or play other disability leadership roles in their state. Christi Kasa, Director of the Office of Inclusive Services at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS), is an experienced active disability advocate, and she shared with Think College how attending DPS helped her remember things she can do in her state and community to support people with disabilities broadly.

“The Seminar reconnected me with the importance of connecting with my local legislators in Colorado. Meeting legislators in Congress and other program staff from across the country helped remind me that we need to continue talking about the work we do with stakeholders at all levels.

Applications for the next group of Think College Policy Advocates will be available in the new year, so more student advocates will get to share their stories with members of Congress, learn what lawmakers are doing that affects their lives, and how they can advocate for their interests.


About the post author: Siddarth Nagaraj is a Senior Program Specialist at the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD). He contributes to AUCD’s legislative research and advocacy for statewide postsecondary education, and directs its global programming.

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