Last week, I attended a presentation, “My Call to Advocacy,” by Jenson Larrimore at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). As I listened to Jenson’s presentation, I realized that he isn’t just a young adult making a presentation to college students with disabilities. He’s a disability advocacy leader!
On October 3, 2006, at age 25, Jenson was living the life of his dreams in Maui, Hawaii. While traveling to his apartment on a moped after work that day, he was hit by a 15-year-old driver, throwing him 60 feet into the air upon impact. When Jenson woke up from a coma six days later, he found out that he had a T6 Complete spinal cord injury and that he was paralyzed from the waist down.
Steps in Becoming a Disability Advocacy Leader
1. Laying the Foundation for Leadership
- Always a positive and optimistic person, Jenson still had to recognize, grieve, and confront the fact that he was paraplegic. He had to accept that some things would never be the same. “Getting to Acceptance” is a process.
- Jenson not only had to make adaptations for everything he did in his daily life; he had to hone his existing skills to make them even better.
- Jenson had to work hard to build his sense of self-worth. After going from 210 pounds to 240 pounds after the injury, he modified his diet and lost 35 pounds in 10 months. His sense of self-worth shot up.
- By losing weight, Jenson also gained a sense of control. He explained that struggling for control – and succeeding in gaining control – is so important for people with disabilities.
- Jenson learned from a peer mentor who also had a T6 injury. He learned that he could do things that he didn’t even think were possible!
2. Developing a Self-Advocacy Mindset
When Jenson started classes at VCU in 2011, he encountered accessibility issues. In fact, he missed seven sessions of one class because of a faulty hydraulic lift. He knew he had to do something – not only for himself, but for other students with disabilities.
Jenson started talking with VCU students who had both physical and mental disabilities. He soon discovered that many young adults were not comfortable becoming self-advocates. Some were not even comfortable sharing with anyone that they have a “hidden” disability.
Physical disabilities are usually quite obvious. Yet, mental disabilities like ADHD, dyslexia, bipolar disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are often not readily apparent. They’re “hidden.” We have coached several young adults with mental disabilities who weren’t advocating for themselves when we started working with them. They had a mindset of:
- Being shameful, in denial, self-blaming, or beating up on their selves.
- Not wanting to be different from others or to be singled out.
- Believing they “should” be able to do well without help.
- Being uninformed about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
- Not knowing how to obtain and implement accommodations.
Jenson knew that his fellow students had to develop a self-advocacy mindset in order to become their best selves. In fact, Jenson himself was becoming a strong disability advocacy leader because of his preferred mindset:
You’re not disabled; you’re differently abled.
As Jenson started sharing what he had learned, his fellow students began following their new leader. And they became self-advocates!
The foundation of the self-advocacy mindset that Jenson shared with others was two-fold:
- Become comfortable with the person you are.
- Accept that your disability can be as much of an asset as a disadvantage.
3. Taking the Reins as a Disability Advocacy Leader
Jenson knew from the experience with his own peer mentor that there is strength in numbers. Most importantly, he wanted others not to face their challenges alone, and he wanted to make a broad impact that would expedite change at VCU.
What was the result of Jenson’s efforts? In the fall of 2011, he helped found a VCU group called Students for Disability Advocacy and Awareness (SDAA) and became the SDAA President. Not surprisingly, the SDAA motto is “Share the Person, Not the Disability.” It’s a motto that empowers people with disabilities. It’s a motto that teaches “people first.” It’s a great motto for anyone who wants to be a disability advocacy leader.
How Are Disability Advocacy Leaders and Other Leaders Alike?
- Inspire a Shared Vision.
- Be a Role Model.
- Share the Limelight.
- Strengthen Others.
Jenson does all of these things – both as an individual and as an organizational leader. He’s a role model with a vision that inspires others. He shares the limelight with those who help fellow students. And he strengthens others by encouraging them to believe in and advocate for themselves. In fact, he has now passed the SDAA leadership baton to a new VCU disability advocacy leader.
Summary of Our Leadership Series
This is the last article in our 4-part leadership series. We’ve talked about leadership potential, parent leaders, creativity and imagination in leaders, and disability advocacy leaders. We hope that these articles have inspired you to strengthen your leadership skills – or perhaps to step into a leadership role for the first time!