Finding A Voice: Rebecca Darling Shares Her Journey Of Discovering Self-Advocacy

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By Rebecca Darling

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”—Henry David Thoreau

Ever since I was young, I felt I would do great things. However, an elephant has been standing in my way, and its name is quite long. The name of my elephant is “Being Afraid to Open My Mouth.” Some would say that is a funny name for an elephant, but it is true. Until recently, I was extremely quiet, looked to others for direction and hesitated in decisions. Why? As a young person with a disability, I did not understand myself. Additionally, I did not know how to stand up for myself. Ask my elementary school teachers; I hardly said a word outside of academic instruction.

This all changed once I landed in Athens, Ohio and at Ohio University. Well, everything really started in my junior year of high school. At this time, I was beginning my college search and beginning “the plan.” This plan meant the end of high school; this plan meant moving on; this plan meant making my own decisions. Before my junior year of high school, I did not have an orientation and mobility specialist. For those who are unfamiliar, an orientation and mobility specialist is someone who is certified to teach and assist individuals with visual impairments to move safety within the environment and understand the world around them—these specialists are usually referred to as O&M instructors. So, what does an O&M instructor have to do with standing up for myself? For me, this meant everything. While in high school I was very good at planning through a computer, I needed a voice. I needed to voice my concerns and get things out there. By working with my O&M instructor, I was pushed to do this. I was pushed to make decisions with my voice and advocate for my well-being. That is where everything started. Everything began with that one phone call to the Columbus Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) to inquire about bus schedules. While I hated it then, I am so thankful my O&M instructor, Dan Zink from the Midwest Regional Educational Service Center in Bellefontaine, Ohio. Without Dan, I would not be as successful as I am now.

So what does O&M exactly have to do with my self-advocacy development? Through Dan’s lessons, I learned how to get around my environment safety and how to use my voice for assistance. For example, during my junior year of high school, I was uncertain about driving. How else was I going to get around? Well, a few options flew to my fingers. Option one: walk; option two: utilize a bus system; or option three: call a friend or a taxi. Since the weather in Ohio changes every five minutes, walking could not always be my option, so I needed to investigate the others. This meant calling an agency and talking to another person—something that I could not stand. Dan knew I hated the phone, so many of my O&M lessons were focused around calling someone. Now as a college senior, I can gratefully scream “THANK YOU” to Dan for making me call anywhere and everywhere.

While my O&M lessons helped me develop self-advocacy skills, my parents held another piece of the puzzle. Throughout out my schooling, my educational needs did not receive appropriate attention. Throughout my time in the public school system, I was defined as “twice exceptional.” With this I was defined as having a visual impairment, but I was also defined as being talented and gifted. With this twice exceptionality, many can guess what happened to my visual impairment needs. This greatly angered my parents and they voiced their concerns loud and clear. While their support was necessary during the younger grades, it became apparent I needed to say something for myself.

As I moved in middle school, my parents began pushing me to make my own decisions. Throughout these decisions, they supported me and gave me feedback. My parents gave me the opportunity to fail, but they always helped me get back on my feet. I believe this constant support helped me begin building my bridge to self-advocacy. As I advanced into high school, I started using my new skills in full force. However, I did receive some push back. People simply were not used to “the quiet girl” fighting back. Through several attempts, downfalls and thoughts of giving up, I managed to make my voice heard. While my voice was tiny, it was beginning to come out. By the end of my senior year, I was determined to bring that voice out and make it heard.

Over the past four years at Ohio University, I have developed as an educator and as an individual. They say college changes a mindset and while I agree with this to some extent; I say college develops the mindset. Now as a college senior, people cannot “shut me up.” When I get talking, especially about a passion, I will go on forever. This is unlike that quiet girl in P-12 public school system.

Some ask why I waited until now to open my voice. Well, to be a teacher, a person has to say something. Additionally a person has to make decisions, especially for students and their needs. I learned this quick during my first year in my introduction to education class. Why be a teacher if I cannot talk to people or voice my concerns? How would that be effective? Therefore, I sent myself on a mission; I needed to open up that voice.

The path to finding my voice has not been the easiest path. I have had setbacks and I have thought, “Why even bother.” However, I would not be writing this post today without getting my voice out there. By developing my self-advocacy skills, I have taken on several new positions in my professional and personal lives. While I identify as a self-advocate, I identify as an advocate for individuals with disabilities. While intervention specialists usually adopt this rule for their students, I feel this position is necessary. In today’s society, many people do not understand the daily struggles for those with disabilities. By using my personal experiences and background knowledge, I can express these struggles—especially for those who cannot communicate these struggles themselves. While this rests among the professional level, my efforts climb into my personal life as well. I firmly believe education and tolerance go hand-in-hand. By voicing my concerns and using my voice, I can make an impact. While that impact may be small, it is at least out there.

So, where is that elephant now? He is now sitting within his natural habitat. While I still find instances where speaking up and voicing concerns is difficult, I am no longer blocked by a huge beast. I no longer need to struggle to get over that hurdle of making decisions, voicing my concerns and letting everyone know my thoughts.

Looking back to my younger years, I wish this change would have occurred years ago. With these successful developments, I now feel like a person and I feel as if my thoughts matter. Additionally, my developments have allowed me many opportunities. I am now a daytime bioptic driver and I pursuing my nighttime license. I serve on the Athens City Commission on Disabilities as a student voice for the Ohio University community and the Athens community.  I am the Secretary for Ohio University’s chapter of Kappa Delta Pi (the International Education Honor Society). I am a Student Ambassador for the Patton College of Education and I frequently give presentations about myself with the Patton College of Education. Finally, to top things off, I am in a yearlong professional internship at Nelsonville-York Junior High in Nelsonville, Ohio.

So, needless to say, self-advocacy has greatly impacted my life. I cannot wait for my mouth and my voice to lead me to other opportunities. It has been quite a ride, and I glad I hung on for the journey.