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Partners for youth with disabilities.

Partners for Youth with Disabilities (PYD) is a nonprofit organization committed to empowering youth with disabilities through connecting them with mentors and role models. For nearly 20 years, PYD has developed a wide range of mentoring programs, including Youth in Preparation for Independence, Making Healthy Connections. Young Entrepreneurs Project, Access Io Theatre, and Partners On line. All of these programs connect youth with disabilities with individuals who serve as positive role models and who provide them with invaluable support, information and assistance with goal se[ting and career planning.

Studies demonstrate that youth with disabilities significantly benefit by participating in mentoring programs. This is especially true for students transitioning from school to work. Fortunately, mentoring programs can easily be incorporated into the transition planning of students with disabilities when service providers have the right information.


For a child with a disability, growing up is often accompanied with feelings of inadequacy and alienation, fueled by the lowered expectations of well-meaning adults. Without the benefit of role models who have become successful, contributing members of society and who have known the exclusion and frustration that children with disabilities experience, the child has no path to follow and little evidence that plans and dreams can be realized.

According to statistics compiled by the National Organization on Disability (NOD) and the Massachusetts Office on Disability (MAD), there are more than 1,150,000 people with disabilities in Massachusetts alone. Of these, 70,000, or 6 percent, are young people under the age of 15 (Massachusetts Department of Education, 1999). ( progrpt99.doc).

It is undeniable that people with disabilities face a particularly grim situation with respect to their economic and educational well-being. The need for programming to improve the lives of individuals with disabilities is evident. Individuals with disabilities want to further their education and attain not only employment but actual careers. Yet according to President George W. Bush (2001):

* One out of five adults with disabilities has not graduated from high school, compared to less than one of ten adults without disabilities.

* National diploma graduation rates for students who receive special education and related services have stagnated at 27 percent for the past three years, while rates are 75 percent for students who do not rely on special education.

* In 1997, over 33 percent of adults with disabilities lived in a household with an annual income of less than $15,000, compared to only 12 percent of those without disabilities.

* Unemployment rates for working age adults with disabilities have hovered at the 70 percent level for at least the past 12 years, while rates are in the low digits for working age adults without disabilities.

These findings corroborate the results of data gathered by Partners for Youth with Disabilities (PYD), which yield the view that adolescents with disabilities are not considered a priority either for funding or for programming. Youth with disabilities present a group in need of intensive and accessible support, recreation and educational opportunities. Partners' Mentoring Programs are designed to prevent exclusion and isolation and to serve as a barrier free model for community organizations and educational institutions that are still coping with these barriers. Although the reality facing these young people is grim, PYD has proven that with enough support, choices, resources, and mentoring opportunities, youth with disabilities demonstrate their resiliency and make enormous strides in the midst of seemingly insumnountable challenges (

It has been found to be critical that community connections between youth with disabilities and positive role models and activities are made at the latest by the transition age of 14 (Massachusetts Transition Initiative, 1996). By forging connections to the community at a young age, youth with disabilities have increased opportunities in our society by Completing high school, continuing on to higher education (including college and vocational training), achieving employment, determining their own future with a sense of control over their own lives, and reaching for their dreams.

From the beginning, it has been PYD's priority to improve the confidence, ambition and leadership of youth at risk by running quality after school programming for youth with disabilities, especially those from minority cultural backgrounds, a group of people who, more than most other groups of youth, fall through the cracks when it comes to out-of-school programming. In Boston alone there are well over 10,000 youth with disabilities between the ages of 13 and 19 (Massachusetts Department of Education, 1999).

Linkages between students with disabilities and after school resources in Massachusetts remain quite weak, especially when considering that most after school programs are not even accessible (Massachusetts Inter-Agency Disability Services Coordinating Council, 2000). It has been found that adolescents with disabilities, specifically those ages 12-19, are one of the most underserved groups of individuals both when compared to the population as a whole and when compared to the entire age-range of individuals with disabilities (National Center for Youth with Disabilities, 1999). Further adolescents with disabilities who come from minority cultural backgrounds face additional barriers, including the attitudes of the general population not only to the disability, but also to skin color or speech accent, as well as the attitudes of the native culture toward disability and full societal participation.

For years, participants and their families have thanked us for improving the participants' self-esteem and for assisting them to accomplish what most believed impossible. Unfortunately, there are still many young people with disabilities with few friends and limited support from peers (Gottlieb & Leyser, 1981; Stainback, Stainback & Wilkinson, 1992). They often report feelings of rejection and isolation. The impact of social isolation is far-reaching, affecting riot only friendships but also academic and career success (Hawken, Duran & Kelley, 1991). Poverty poses an additional obstacle for individuals with disabilities (President Bush, 2001). As the end of high school approaches, so does the termination of a structured environment (Massachusetts Inter-Agency Disability Services Coordinating Council, 2000). When compared to people without disabilities, people with disabilities are less prepared to meet the challenges of adulthood and are more likely to continue to live with their parents after high school and engage in fewer-social activities (Moccia, Schumaker, Hazel, Vernon & Deshler, 1989; Massachusetts Transition Initiative, 1996). Ultimately, people with disabilities experience much higher unemployment rates and significantly lower earnings (President Bush, 2001). Youth with disabilities are exposed to societal discrimination and environmental factors that place many of them at high risk for depression, low self-esteem, alcohol and/or drug abuse, and other threats to their health and happiness.


The PYD Mentor Match Program has successfully built on the strengths and assets of experienced adults with disabilities who have worked to help their younger counterparts become more independent. The program affords an opportunity for adult mentors to contribute their unique background and experiences.

PYD has provided the evidence that matching youth with disabilities with an adult mentor with a disability brings the youth out of isolation and into a community of peers. Because the adult partner has lived through the problems and limits that the youth is facing, a mentor is able to broaden the horizons of a partner and to challenge that partner to reach out and control life with a greater degree of legitimacy. The youth sees that someone with the same challenges can accomplish greater things than the youth had ever imagined. It is here that true mentoring can occur. As a role model, the adult teaches by enabling the youth to witness a purposeful and full life. The adult guides more directly as well, passing along methods and information about living in the world with a disability and thus preventing the cycle of poverty, unemployment, emotional instability and dependence on society that is often a risk for persons with disabilities.

The PYD Mentor Match Program addresses the aforementioned barriers to autonomous adulthood by providing positive role models who demonstrate, by their success, what can be achieved. An adult mentor with a disability is just the resource needed to motivate and inspire a young person learning to cope and develop. Additionally, adult mentors provide a valuable resource for the families of participants by helping parents understand what their youth is feeling, thus strengthening parents as advocates and allowing them to envision a wider range of life opportunities for their child. Program outcomes of PYD indicate that mentors assist their youth in developing independent living skills, increasing self-esteem and becoming more integrated into the community.

Additional outcomes include the following:

* Youth learn to communicate their needs and desires to parents, teachers and other significant adults.

* They develop social and recreational skills.

* They increase self-help skills in areas such as eating and meal preparation, dressing, mobility and other activities of daily living.

* They understand how to acquire and utilize appropriate modes of transportation.

Self-esteem indicators include:

* developing a sense of disability pride, feeling themselves deserving and worthy of love and respect;

* building confidence in social situations and the ability to form friendships; and

* relying less on the approval of others for self-satisfaction and happiness.

Motivation indicators include:

* recognizing and seizing opportunities,

* developing a more healthy response to failures, and

* having an increased desire for being the best that the individual can be.

Integration into the community outcomes include:

* awareness of the availability of resources that will assist with the individual's integration into the community,

* using the resources available to assist him/her into the community and becoming knowledgeable about disability rights and the types of accommodations the individual needs to be able to participate in more community activities, and

* increasing the number of community activities in which the individual participates.


The larger community benefits from the contribution these mentors make by having a group of young people with disabilities who are better prepared for a full life. These young people will be able to follow in the footsteps of their mentors and contribute to society through volunteer work, employment and all aspects of community life.


Vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies could create their own formal or informal mentoring program. PYD is convinced that a formal mentoring program is the most effective method. Adults with disabilities can be recruited to serve as volunteers to be matched with youth who are in their rehabilitation and transition programs. VR agencies could set up formal mentoring programs themselves, or they could collaborate with existing mentor programs.


Essential characteristics of an effective mentor include responsibility, trustworthiness, integrity, well-developed independent living skills that are being practiced, past experience working with youth, open-mindedness, flexibility, resourcefulness, commitment to making time for the relationship, and persistence. PYD has a lengthy, well-defined and established mentor training application and training process. Additionally, PYD evaluates what the adult with a disability can bring to the role modeling experience in the areas of independent living, transportation and social skills; in development of talents, goals and career; and in vocational and educational achievements. Development of good mentors includes offering a thorough training process through PYD's individual, one-on-one, staff-to-mentor and mentor group training by skilled professionals. Successful training includes mentoring functions, mentoring skills, rules of effective communication, do's and don'ts of the mentoring relationship, conflict resolution and problem solving, written policies concerning alcohol and drug use, confidentiality and reporting of abuse.

PYD uses a multifaceted approach to recruitment of mentors, including advertising through disability-related publications; networking with state agencies, schools, hospitals, human service agencies, independent living centers, VR commissions, and others; presenting information at statewide conferences; and through direct mail campaigns. Youth and mentors go through the application and screening process to enable PYD staff to make the most appropriate matches.


Over the past decade, tremendous strides have been made in documenting me success or mentoring. The National Mentoring Partnership, Secretary of State Colin Powell and America's Promise have all made extraordinary efforts in bringing mentoring to the fore of the nation's consciousness as the premier way to serve youth.

A 1995 Public Private Ventures study of 959 Big Brother/Big Sister youth documented positive results for youth involved in mentoring programs, including the following:

* Mentoring youth are less likely to drink, use drugs, behave violently and skip school than their non-mentored counterparts;

* Mentored youth are more likely to attend college and more likely to improve their grades.

Research clearly indicates that mentors play a critical role in the lives of youth and that having a positive relationship with a caring adult can be a critical factor in helping youth rise above difficult life circumstances to lead healthy, fulfilling and successful lives.


Mentors and youth engage in educational activities, including trips to the library, museums, zoos; cultural activities, such as eating at restaurants, attending local festivals, theatre and concerts; entertainment activities such as watching movies, picnicking, trips to the beach and to each other's homes; and sports and recreational activities, including informal sports activities or playing on a team. PYD occasionally obtains complimentary tickets for museums, theatres and sports events that are passed on to the mentors and mentees.


In my experience of over 17 years in implementing PYD, the funding challenge has been to advocate for the inclusion of youth with disabilities in the programming options and funding that is available for the population of "at-risk" youth. Research indicates that youth with disabilities are underfunded when programming funds are made available. Nearly $2 billion (20 percent of all grants) has been directed towards helping youth, of which at-risk programs receive a large subset. Approximately $400 million of these dollars were targeted for programs that serve those with disabilities (4.6% of all earmarked grants). The data indicates that a collective effort is vital in the advocacy of dollars to be shared for programs serving the population of youth with disabilities. (1)


(1.) Dollar amounts are from 2000 Nationwide Data Source: Foundation Giving Trends, 2001.

(2.) Taken from a speech by Judge Reginald C. Lindsay, "Honoring our Mentors Night," before Palmers for Youth with Disabilities as part of National Disability Mentoring Day, October 24, 2001


Bush, G.W. (2001). New Freedom Initiative, Executive Summary, available online at: http:/ / freedom initiative/freedominitiative.html

Gottlieb, J. & Leyser, Y. (1981). Friendships between mentally retarded and nonretarded children. In S. Asher & J. Gottman (Eds.). The development of children's friendships (pp. 150-181). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hawken, L., Duran, R.L., & Kelly L. (1991). The relationship of interpersonal communication variable to academic success and persistence in college. Communication Quarterly, 39(4), 297-308.

Massachusetts Department of Education, Educational Technology. (1999). School system summary report. Available at http://

Massachusetts Inter-Agency Disability Services Coordinating Council (2000). The Disability Service System: A Report on Existing Services, Barriers, Gaps and Duplications. Final finding report.

Massachusetts Transition Initiative. (1996). Moving on: planning for the future. Boston, Institute for Community Inclusion.

McNeil, J.M. (1997). Current population reports: Americans with Disabilities 1994-95. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce (Document Number 1246).

Moccia, R.E., Schumaker, J., Hazel, S.J., Vernon D.S., & Deshler, D.D. (1989). A mentor program for facilitating the life transitions of individuals who have handicapping conditions. Reading, Writing, and teaming Disabilities, 5, 177-195.

National Center for Youth with Disabilities. (1999).

Public/Private Ventures. (1995). Based on a 1989 Harris Poll.

Stainback, W., Stainback, S., & Wilkinson, A. (1992). Encouraging peer supports and friendships. Teaching Exceptional Children, 24(2), 6-11.

"The mentors of Partners for Youth with Disabilities do not guide simply by words--although they always speak words of encouragement, strength and comfort. Our mentors primarily guide by their own lives, by the lessons of their own achievements, and by the grace of their bearing in a world that frequently misunderstands and even devalues people with disabilities. By just being themselves, our mentors demonstrate that society is wrong when it says that, if you have a disability, all you can aspire to is public wardship. By just being themselves, our mentors demonstrate that society is wrong when it says that if you have a disability you have no ability and are not capable of adding value to the world. By just being themselves, our mentors demonstrate that society is wrong when it says if you have a disability you cannot--indeed, you should not--feel good about yourself. By just being themselves, our mentors demonstrate life-affirming life-enriching values. Our mentors are paradigms of survival, adaptation and socialization; they teach entrepreneurship; they teach health awareness; they teach the arts; they teach political and advocacy skills, they teach independence and self-reliance; they teach empowerment. Franklin Roosevelt--himself a man with a disability--said: "We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future." Our mentors, in their day-to-day interactions with their mentees, are about the business of building our youth for the future." (2)

Information on research and resources can be obtained from the following Web sites: GenPowellCorner/ GenPowellCorner.cfm


With the World Wide Web everywhere, giving the ability to access everything from a bank statement to grocery shopping by just clicking on their computer, the Internet has also brought a whole new kind of accessibility to youths with disabilities and their mentors. In November 2002, PYD kicked off an innovative mentoring program that will reach out to youths with disabilities through the computer.

The new program, "Partners Online," is funded by the Technology Opportunities Program of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation. The program will pair youths and adults with similar disabilities through a private computer network that can be reached through the Internet. Participants can use familiar technology like e-mail and threaded discussion, as well as some slightly newer and more interactive communication like instant messages.

Despite frequent requests from across Massachusetts and the nation, PYD's services have been limited to Greater Boston because of the logistical difficulties of coordinating aspects of the program, such as transportation for the youths and mentors, throughout a large geographical area. With the new online mentoring program, PYD will be expanding its geographical outreach to include all youths throughout Massachusetts and, through the development of a replication model, the United States. Most recently, PYD has partnered with the Computer Technologies Program of Berkeley California to create a program on the West Coast. Through this new collaboration, PYD is planning to develop a model that other agencies throughout the country can implement.

Online mentoring will offer people with disabilities who could not otherwise participate in a mentoring program because lack of accessible transportation and/or medical issues a way to meet with youths and mentors through their home, school and/or work computers. "Partners On-Line" will begin to close the gap of communication that currently exists between young people with disabilities and adults with disabilities so that they can learn from one another, develop friendships and learn about resources that can assist them in leading a full and productive life. While the basic mission of "Partners Online" will provide a safe place to youths and adults with disabilities to gather, it will give all participants a chance for self-expression that will not have any of the daily limits faced by this community.
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Author:Snowden, Regina
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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