Overcoming obstacles to advocate for students with disabilities
For Melanie Hecker, studying public policy at the University at Albany was the next logical step to help others overcome the same obstacles she faced growing up.
Rather than autism itself being the obstacle, Hecker said many of the problems she faced were the services that the state did not provide her.
“Those of us in the autistic community don’t view autism as a setback or something negative,” said Hecker. “We just see it as another way of being.”
Born and raised in Colonie, Hecker’s home elementary school district bused her to another school because they could not provide services such as a one-on-one aide for her.
“Growing up I was pretty isolated from the community,” said Hecker. “I didn’t have very much to do with my home district, but once I became an adult, starting working, I started getting re-integrated into this community.”
Hecker said her watershed moment came when she attended an event by Youth Power, a New York network and advocacy center for young people with disabilities or experiencing addiction recovery.
“I just loved it,” said Hecker, who was 18 at the time. “I volunteered for them for about a year onward, after which they hired me.”
As Youth Power’s systems advocate, Hecker began speaking at awareness events and serving on state committees, including those held by the New York Office of Mental Health and the Department of Education.
At a listening session for the Office of People with Developmental Disabilities, Hecker highlighted a policy change she had been advocating for years.
State law currently makes it difficult to receive services from both OPWDD and the Office of Mental Health. People like Hecker who have autism and mental health problems often must choose one or the other.
“I spoke in front of the commissioner and that gave her the reaction of, ‘Why the hell does she not get services from us?’”
After this meeting, which Hecker laughingly refers to as “blackmail,” commissioner Kerry Delaney was able to get OPWDD to provide services to her.
Transferring from classes at Hudson Valley Community Colleges to full-time college at UAlbany showed Hecker that both schools have their advantages and their drawbacks.
On one hand, Hecker said she likes her academic adviser here better than her adviser at HVCC, whom she described as prejudiced against people with disabilities.
But there are problems at UAlbany that Hecker wants to see worked out. Among them: physical accessibility.
Hecker, who is a member of the UAlbany Delta Alpha Pi honor society for students with disabilities, pointed to the lecture centers as an example.
Currently, students in wheelchairs must navigate through the basements of academic buildings to find an opening to the lecture centers.
Hecker still gives speeches advocating for education reforms like alternatives to Regents exams. One event is in Asheville, North Carolina, where she plans to speak at the end of the semester.
Her advice to her fellow students on interacting with people like her:
“Don’t view disability as a tragedy. View disability as a part of human diversity, as a part of the human landscape. Realize that disability is an important part of people’s identity, but that disabled people have so much more to their identities too.”