By Leanne Libas
“If my child was autistic, I would say to them them: ‘Baby, it’s going to be okay. There’s nothing wrong with you,'”Leanne Libas
As I look back at the blogs I’ve written for The Art of Autism, I started wondering what should I write for the last month of the year. Then, I noticed that I mentioned the Youth Leadership Forum for Students with Disabilities (YLF) numerous times. Some of you might not be familiar with YLF. I realized that I haven’t participated in the #ThankYouYLF challenge. Since the holiday season is about giving back, I am going to write about YLF and why it made a huge impact on my life. (Editor’s note: this blog was written in December and posted in January).
The first time someone mentioned YLF to me was in January 2014 when Mrs. Reese, my Workability counselor, shared this amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity where teens spend five days on the Sacramento State campus meeting other disabled students, learning about disability history and culture, and the resources for achieving personal and career goals. I seized the opportunity because I didn’t want to live with regrets. Unlike the other students that Mrs. Reese tried to persuade, I genuinely wanted to apply to YLF. As always, Mom was skeptical since she immediately found out that YLF was located in Sacramento (and we live hundreds of miles away). Obviously, it scared her since I have never flew on a plane without parent supervision, and she was worried that we had to pay for the expenses (e.g. plane tickets, transport). It was understandable as a parent, she had the right to have these concerns. I reeled her in with the fact that YLF will pay for all my expenses. She finally gave me the okay to apply.
It was a few months after I applied to YLF when I received the call. I would be one of the candidates in my region to be interviewed! Luckily, I was able to be have a phone interview since I didn’t have my driver’s license at the time. When the interview finally came, I was nervous since it was the first time I was interviewed over the phone. At the end of the call, I felt relieved knowing that I had a great conversation with Andy, one the co-directors for YLF 2014. Within a month, I had a letter saying I was accepted into YLF! My first reaction: I was freaking out! I was elated with the fact I was accepted because I had my doubts. Also, it was going to be exciting since I didn’t do too much except train for cross country.
As I packed my bags, I imagined what the people would look like. My first thought was that the student-delegates would be from special education. During that time, I tried to be a part of the general population, and the only type of any disability culture that I had was speech therapy, a few students who actually disclosed their disability, and special education. I did acknowledge to others that I was autistic, yet it was something that I had to be cautious about when sharing (despite the fact I open my mouth way too much.)
Was I proud to be autistic? No, I wasn’t.
I thought it was something I had to hide from others, and I was trying way too hard not to show my weaknesses. I was an ableist even though I had a disability.
After successfully going through my first time flying on an airplane and meeting some of the student delegates, we arrived in Sacramento. We drove to the campus and stopped at the dorms we were going to stay for the week. As I started getting acquainted with everyone, my first impressions diminished. In reality, the student-delegates were just teenagers who were either excited, nervous, or unsure about the forum. Even though they all had disabilities, I didn’t see it. I saw them as motivated teens who wanted to learn more about themselves and gain something from this experience. I learned from that moment on that I shouldn’t judge their disability and assume they aren’t capable.
Throughout the entire forum, the student-delegates had the opportunity to meet other successful people in the disabled community who talked about their experiences about being disabled. My perspective started to change. My life-changing moment came when YO! Disabled and Proud (Youth Organizing! Disabled and Proud) had their presentation. As I listened to the presentators, Allie Cannington and the late Ki’tay Davidson, they eventually mentioned autism. They showed a video of a poet talking about his autistic brother. As I listened to the poet’s words, I started crying because the poet talked about all the struggles that his brother faced. I realized that I faced those challenges too. As I cried, the members of my small group comforted me. After the video, they asked anyone in the audience if they have any questions or comments. I raised my hand. Allie and Ki’tay choose me and I spoke my truth.
“When I saw the video, I didn’t think it impacted me so much until I realized who he was talking about. When he talked about his brother, I started to remember all the challenges that I also experienced,” I told everyone through my tears.
I went on talking about how upset I was when I first found out about my diagnosis to how I was scared when I disclosed my disability to other people.
“If my child was autistic, I would say to them them: ‘Baby, it’s going to be okay. There’s nothing wrong with you,'” I concluded.
After the presentation, I cried almost every single day because something within me had changed. I realized I wasn’t alone because I knew that the other student-delegates also face similar challenges. The experience was cathartic. Besides going through this healing process, I had a lot of fun getting to know everyone, from the student-delegates to the American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters. We are not only bonded through our experiences, but we bonded through activities such as the YLF X-Games, going to the Capitol, participating in a luncheon, and the big dance. When the last day arrived, it was hard to say goodbye.
I learned many lessons from YLF. The biggest lessons that I have taken from YLF are:
- Never judge someone’s capabilities just because they have a disability
- When in need of assistance, there are many personal and career resources to choose from
- Advocate not only for yourself but for others
If I didn’t attend YLF, I wouldn’t be the person I am today, and I wouldn’t be writing this for you guys. I am grateful to be a part of the YLF family.
If you are a high school junior or senior with a disability in California, this leadership forum is a great experience to meet other people and learn about the many opportunities you can get. To apply for YLF, go to http://www.rehab.cahwnet.gov/YLF/. The deadline is January 15, 2016. It’s coming soon, so apply now!
If you don’t live in California, and you live in the United States, find out if your state provides YLF. If they don’t, petition it to the government because we want other disabled students to have this experience. Same goes to those who live outside the U.S. It personally affected me and it is the reason why I advocate.
If you want more information about the California YLF, visit https://calylf.org/.
A message to the readers: I am excited and honored to be a part of the Art of Autism Advisory Board. As an advisory board member, my main goal is create improvements for the Art of Autism and to welcome different perspectives. If you have any suggestions to improve the Art of Autism, please contact me through firstname.lastname@example.org or on on Facebook through my page Chronicles of an Autistic Teenager.
Leanne Libas is a blogger for the Art of Autism. She started advocating after a life-changing experience at YLF (Youth Leadership Forum for Students with Disabilities). Whenever she doesn’t work on her homework or scan a bunch of papers at work, she spends her free time reading books, watching YouTube videos, searching on the Internet to learn more about the disabled community and culture, and creating her own fantasy world with her latest special interests.