YLF teaches students to

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 13, 2000

take the ‘dis’ out of disability


Staff Writer

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Some Alabama high school students are learning about taking the "dis" out of "disability" and how to succeed in society without being hindered by physical and mental challenges.

This week, the Troy State University campus is home to the next generation of leaders during the Third Annual Alabama Governor’s Youth Leadership Forum, sponsored by the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, TSU and the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.

YLF is giving 30 Alabama high school juniors and seniors with disabilities the opportunity to acquire leadership skills, explore career options, interact with successful Alabamians with disabilities and study the history of disability rights.

The five-day event features a variety of activities that are meant to encourage and prepare the young participants to assume leadership roles in their communities. Delegates will also focus a considerable amount of their attention on career development, using the Internet to research fields of interest and writing a professional development plan based on their research.

Two Troy State University graduates were among a panel of five that discussed their challenges.

Michael Autrey works for Consumer Relations in the Alabama Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.

The TSU graduate was in his mid-20s when he experienced a bout with severe depression that forced him to stop working. Major depression and his overwhelming fear of contamination, later diagnosed as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder eventually put him in a psychiatric hospital.

"I probably washed my hands, when I was sickest, 100 times a day," Autrey said.

Eventually, he had his mental disorders under control and was ready to go back into banking ­ a job he held before getting sick ­ but he got turned down "over and over" when trying to re-enter the workforce.

"Things have changed a lot since then," Autrey said referring to the stigma attached to mental illness.

To those students with physical limitations, Autrey said, those with mental illnesses "deal with a lot of the same issues."

But, there is one major difference. Those with physical disabilities are able to cope because their brain is healthy.

"With mental illness, that’s the very thing not working right," Autrey said. "Sometimes, it can be very frustrating."

Although there is still a great deal of stigma attached to mental illness, Autrey said, advocates of the mentally ill have brought to light that sufferers are not the violent people portrayed in movies and the media.

"When I was in college, the way you dealt with people with mental illness was to take them to Bryce Hospital forever," Autrey said.

That is not the case today, although discrimination still exists.

"Things are getting better," Autrey said, adding those students sitting before him have the ability to make even more strides toward acceptance of people with disabilities.

"People with mental illness can do anything anyone else can," Autrey said. "Mental illness doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence."

David Stewart is another TSU graduate who has made his mark in a big way despite the fact he’s a little person.

Stewart was born in 1957 with dwarfism, but his parents, neighbors and friends in Monroeville all encouraged him.

"I didn’t really think of myself as being different," Stewart.

The son of a newspaper publisher, Stewart became fascinated when the first radio station came to town. At age 10, he realized nobody was on the air on Saturdays and thought he could fill the void.

His father, who owned the station, agreed and soon the young boy was on the air.

Eventually, he went to Troy State and pursued a degree in broadcast journalism. Today, he’s spent decades working in the radio business.

"I still face challenges every day as a little person," Stewart said. "My parents always told me ‘it’s what’s upstairs that counts’ and I don’t feel I’m limited by my short stature."

Barbara Crozier was 8 years old when a wheelchair became her constant companion thanks to polio.

But, the woman who considered her small country hometown more of a hindrance than her disabilities is now executive director of

the Governor’s Office on Disabilities, which she calls "GOOD."

Crozier told the students it is their expectations of themselves that will determine how far they go in life.

"I didn’t see the big difference in myself," Crozier said, remembering when she came out of the hospital as a young girl. "I was still me. I was still Barbara."

So, she went to work making people realize she was someone with skills, talents and plenty of personality.

"I knew I was smart," Crozier said. Back then, people with disabilities were expected to be invalids in the back bedroom."

That did not fit into her plans.

"It’s boring in the back bedroom," Crozier said. "You have to get out there and find life. To me, the biggest tool for independence is an independent attitude."

Crozier calls herself "one dynamic woman" despite the fact she can’t bathe or dress herself of go to the bathroom alone.

Her advice to the students in YLF was to "discount what you can’t do and focus on what you can do."

The first Youth Leadership Forum was held in California in 1992. Since then, more than 20 states have adopted the event.

YLF delegates are chosen through a statewide competition that seeks students with disabilities who have leadership potential. The group that is selected is representative of the state in terms of geography, gender, economic status, ethnicity and types of disabilities.