By Jonathan Neidorf (Assistant to TFC Board)
(L-R) Ryan Herr, John DeVanna, and Paula Bollenbacher of Seneca County Opportunity Center and Seneca STIR
In the small Ohio city of Tiffin, Seneca County Opportunity Center (SCOC) provides service coordination, early intervention, residential services, and day and employment services to children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). Despite the size of their community, self-advocates at SCOC have managed to make a big impact in local and national disability rights causes.
Founded in 1955, SCOC’s self-advocacy initiatives formed in the 1990s. In 2009, their advocates, along with other advocates across Ohio, experienced their first major political accomplishment working with others to convince Ohio legislators to eliminate the expression “mental retardation” from the names of state offices. For the last eleven years, advocates from SCOC have stayed active in policy initiatives, as well as training other people with I/DD to be self-advocates, both in their personal lives and in politics.
Advocates from SCOC are now known as “Seneca STIR.” They were inspired to organize themselves more formally by Project STIR (Steps Towards Independence and Responsibility), a self-advocacy training program founded by the University of North Carolina’s Institute for Developmental Disabilities. Members of Seneca STIR have initiated a number of projects in their community including volunteering at a local high school and fundraising for Ronald McDonald House Charities. Every year, they organize the UNITY Conference, an advocacy conference planned by people with disabilities for people with disabilities. UNITY Council, the overarching advocacy group in Seneca County, meets monthly and hears advocacy reports from all other local advocacy groups, including Seneca STIR. As members of Together for Choice, both self-advocates and staff from SCOC are active in our mission, particularly in preserving Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Seneca STIR has met with state legislators in trips to Columbus and numerous public forums on I/DD supports and services.
Members are also frequently asked to speak publicly to promote inclusion of people with disabilities in social life. Paula Bollenbacher has been a disability rights advocate for a decade and has spoken at churches, community centers, local government offices, and on the radio. She often invokes her own experiences facing discrimination when speaking publicly. “When I was a little kid, my mom would take my sister to the library. I would not go, I was not allowed because I was handicapped,” she recalls. Paula doesn’t let audiences forget that still today “people are backwards sometimes,” but she shows how much things have changed since her childhood to demonstrate that large-scale social change is possible.
Ryan Herr was first trained as a self-advocate in 2007. In addition to fighting for his workshop employment, he has spent a lot of time giving back to his community. A fan of the local high school’s basketball team, Ryan noticed that the school struggled to keep the gym clean between games. He took it upon himself to remedy this, reaching out directly to the school’s administration to organize a volunteer opportunity for himself and others clean the entire gym. He also loves connecting with children and often speaks about the harm bullying causes, particularly to kids with I/DD. Ryan and other advocates from Seneca STIR also supported students at Tiffin University to sign a pledge seeking to “Spread the Word to End the Word.”
When asked what advice to give others wanting to become self-advocates, Ryan, and Paula both underscored the importance of asking for help. People with I/DD are often labeled as helpless or incapable, so it is common for them to feel embarrassed asking for help. Paula pointed out though that without someone teaching you how to do something, including advocating for yourself, you’ll never be able to do it independently. Ryan cites personal examples of how he could only have accomplished huge tasks like cleaning the high school gym with some type of support from other people. In reflecting on how to best create a disability rights movement, John DeVanna suggested a grassroots approach. He calls this method “growing your heart out,” explaining that the movement’s “growth will get bigger and bigger and be more wide-spanning to help other people out.”