The Youth Leadership Forum is a national organization dedicated to improving the educational lives of students with disabilities. Kay McMillan, a 23-year-old recent graduate from NC State who has cerebral palsy, was heavily involved with the movement and sings its praises.
“First, I created a presentation on disability history that I have presented at schools, as well as conferences across the country,” McMillan said. “To be a good advocate for yourself, you need to have an understanding of those who came before you. I am especially proud of my work with YLF and how many youths we inspired to live an independent life and not let their disability define them.”
While in college, McMillan led by example. She moved into a dorm her freshman year of college and, with some assistance, lived an independent life. Now, she wishes to help others do the same.
“My first post-college opportunity involves promoting employment for people with disabilities, which is the goal of education,” McMillan said.
McMillan has also worked for better circumstances by emphasizing that disabled students do not allow themselves to be held back from pursuing their education nor be defined by their disability.
“Whether it is getting an automatic door opener installed at school or making sure the lift at the community pool is in good working order and staff knows how to use it, these changes help everyone see the value people with disabilities bring to the table,” McMillan said.
Like the agenda that she pushes, she has had to overcome many obstacles in her own life and at school. One of the challenges McMillan faced at NC State’s campus was that it is divided by train tracks that race right through the middle of campus.
“Also, managing the additional logistics of personal care attendants, academic assistants and scheduling through the Disability Office adds a lot to the already full plate of a full-time student,” McMillan said.
McMillan attributes her success to having very flexible professors who she could go to way before an assignment was due. If she realized that a task was beyond manageable, McMillan would share her burden with her professors, and they would help with the alternatives she proposed. McMillan said she has to stay very organized and not waste a second of time.
She joined the North Carolina YLF when she was 15 years old. She attended as a participant, then as a mentor and finally, she joined the staff.
McMillan said she regrets that there is not an active chapter of YLF in North Carolina anymore, but that is something that she hopes to personally change. She credits YLF with changing her life.
The recent graduate has also been a member of the New Voices Foundation (NVF) through her mother, Sandy McMillan, who has been involved with them since 2007. Her family was featured in a documentary entitled “Certain Proof: A Question of Worth” that highlighted the difficulties of educating children with severe communication and physical disabilities.
“I am sort of the poster child for New Voices of what is possible when a child has severe disabilities,” Kay McMillan said.
NVF works with students from NC State, UNC-Chapel Hill and other schools to improve conditions for those with severe communication and physical disabilities affecting their ability to speak and move. The foundation, through increased awareness, seeks to elevate the capabilities of families, teachers and other professionals who work with these students.
Sandy McMillan said she is always looking for interns from State to help her with her website, and they are always in need of help with social media.
“We help the people that are in a place to provide services to these kids, so that they can be the very best that they can be,” Sandy McMillan said. “We provide training opportunities for them. We also make grants for equipment. It’s mostly within the school system, and they typically use them in classrooms.”
New Voices Foundation has invested more than $350,000 in local school districts to provide training to staff and necessary equipment, and raise awareness about the unrealized potential of New Voices’ children. Disabled students are more than their limitations, and they are combatting those challenges: get beside or get behind.
“When people see someone in a wheelchair they automatically think that it is a cognitive issue, and we are working to change that perception,” Sandy McMillan.