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West Virginia Youth Caucus: Erick Dowdy

My name is Erick Dowdy and in summer 2005 I attended the first ever West Virginia Youth Disability Caucus. During the three-day caucus, I joined approximately 20 other disabled teens and young adults from around West Virginia to learn about disability history, the disability community, and the steps to take in making more of the rights of disabled people a reality. Near the end of the caucus, I took part in a mock legislative session that helped teach me about the process a bill must go through before being passed into law.

As if all this wasn't enough to walk away saying "I learned a lot of stuff this weekend," we were spoken to by the WV Speaker of the House, Bob Kiss, and were offered a very exciting proposal. The Speaker told us that if we could come up with an idea for a bill, create the bill and get it to him that he would look at it and possibly give us his support. We were all very excited, but to be honest I wasn't sure how far this proposal would go, and I had no idea it would lead to what happened during the first week of April 2006.

In less than a month after the caucus, a handful of us joined Statewide Independent Living Council Director, Ann Meadows on a conference call to discuss what ideas we had for a possible bill. After a lot of suggestions were thrown around, we came up with an idea for a bill that would focus attention on Disability History Week. For the next month or so after this call we joined in regularly on calls and threw together our ideas for the bill. By November, as unbelievable as it seemed, with the help of Ann Meadows, we had a real bill proposing the idea for Disability History Week and we started looking for support and suggestions.

Seated: Amanda Piercy; Standing (from left to right): Kyle Hickernell, Julianne Bledsoe, Candice Clark, Adrienne Michaud, Russell Pugh, Erick Dowdy

Seated: Amanda Piercy; Standing (from left to right): Kyle Hickernell, Julianne Bledsoe, Candice Clark, Adrienne Michaud, Russell Pugh, Erick Dowdy

The idea for the bill that we came up with, the Disability History Week Bill, was to infuse the contributions and successes of people with disabilities into the school curriculum. All of us agreed that in our elementary and high school experiences we had heard little-to-nothing of disability history, and the accomplishments of people with disabilities. We also knew little-to-nothing about laws that protect our rights as disabled people, and what it took to make those laws reality. For these reasons, and others including the hope of teaching all students, educators and the public at large the worth and ability of disabled people, we decided that this was an area we wanted to draw attention to with our bill.

Ann Meadows helped us put our ideas together and we then constructed the bill, which states that public schools during the third week in October must insert disability history into either the curriculum or school activities. In the same way that a black history month-related video would be shown in schools during February, we wanted disability history presented in schools during this week. The bill was presented with a reminder that we could help provide a database of information and ideas for the schools, so it could be implemented at little or no cost to them. With all this in our bill, we set out to gain support for it.

The first person we talked to via conference call was Terry Bryant, the lobbyist for the West Virginia Education Association. He gave us a lot of positive input after reviewing the bill, and answered many of our questions on who else we would need to talk to and what problems we might face along the way. The next appointment we had was with Senator Robert Plymale in his Huntington office, which I and fellow youth delegate, Shana Hughes, attended to gain his support on the bill. Over the next couple months following these appointments, a few of the other delegates and I met with several important people in the legislature and the board of education. Successful meetings with the Statewide Independent Living Council's board and with Jorea Marple, Assistant Superintendent, Division of Curriculum & Instructional Services with the West Virginia Department of Education. And lastly, Speaker Bob Kiss helped us gain a tremendous amount of support and awareness for the bill.

By the end of March, the bill had successfully passed through the Senate three times as House Bill 4491, "Establishing Disability History Week" and it was now set to be signed by the governor in April. Several of the delegates that attended the caucus attended the bill signing, and it was a tremendous high point in all of our lives. All our hard work over the last several months had finally paid off, and it felt like the entire experience of the caucus, the bill and the law we were fighting to be passed, was coming full-circle in this event.

Youth Caucus at bill signing with WV Governor Joe Manchin

Youth Caucus at bill signing with West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin

The signing went just as well as everyone had expected, and the Disability History Week bill is now law. I am proud to have made what was once just a proposal, a strong reality. With the help of Ann Meadows, the other delegates and others in the disability community and state legislature I have now made what was once just a dream, a law that will now be enforced in our state.

I am eager to spread the word of the bill's signing and of the bill itself to everyone that will either be inspired or learn from it. I will be attending the National Council on Independent Living conference in Washington, DC this May and I will be happy to share the bill and my experiences leading to its passage for everyone there that will listen. This fall I will be attending Marshall University and will strive to get them and other colleges involved with the bill and to support disability history and the disability community.

In less than a year, other delegates and I went from acting out a bill passing, to actually making one pass. This is something I will take with me for the rest of my life, and will use to inspire myself and others with disabilities in the future. Hey, if it was this easy the first time around, another bill can't be that hard!

"Erick will be honored with a Youth Advocacy Award at the National Independent Living conference in Washington, DC later this month and has been selected to sit with Mrs. Yoshiko Dart, widow of Justin Dart, a tireless advocate and leader in the disability rights movement."

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