Seeing the Destination: Becoming a Leader

Students with disabilities, like any other student, also have the capacity to become insightful and skillful leaders when we give them opportunities to build those skills. It may start with being line leader in elementary school and then blossom into becoming a leader in a school club, Sunday school class, sports team, or Scout troop. Our students with disabilities need to be given opportunities to build leadership skills like communicating publicly about their insights, making assignments for others, and following through on responsibilities just like other students. In addition, other students need to see that students with disabilities can contribute in those roles.

A recent standout example is Kentucky high school student and autistic advocate Grayson Kemplin, who was able to contribute his perspective to the Biden-Harris Transition Team. Grayson was also highlighted by the Kentucky Department of Education at their regular meeting on February 3 for his important contribution.

Don’t be intimidated by a project you want to get involved with, or think you aren’t worthy of it. We all learn so much by doing – and volunteer efforts are one of the best ways to gain knowledge, experience, and new connections. 

Grayson Kemplin

Questions and Answers with Grayson Kemplin:

We heard you recently had an exciting leadership opportunity with the Biden-Harris Transition Team, can you tell me about it?

Recently, I applied and was invited to join the Biden-Harris Youth Transition Team. The Team provided an opportunity for young people from across the nation to hear priorities of the incoming administration, to ask questions of transition team members, and to provide feedback. The Biden-Harris Youth Transition Team included agencies and organizations that represent youth, as well as some college and even high school students, like myself.  

How did you learn about this opportunity and get involved?

I have participated in the KentuckyWorks initiative for the last three years. I became involved when I participated in their Postsecondary Community Conversation, where we came together to discuss inclusive higher education options for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. From there, I began attending the KentuckyWorks quarterly meetings and participating in efforts to increase employment options for Kentuckians with disabilities. I am especially interested in the transition window as students graduate from high school and move on to adult life. Being involved in this effort has allowed me to meet many people, hear new ideas, and learn of opportunities. That is how I learned about the Biden-Harris Youth Transition Team! Johnny Collett of the Human Development Institute sent out an email with the invitation. 

I filled out the application form, never dreaming that I would receive an invitation to participate in the incoming president’s transition team meetings for young people! 

What have you done so far with them?

The Transition Team scheduled three meetings through an online format, where representatives from different aspects of the transition provided an overview of their strategy and allowed questions. It has been both informative and interesting to learn information on the different topics, many with major impact on young people. 

Being able to ask questions of the transition team representatives was an amazing opportunity. I asked questions aimed at understanding the impact of planned policy and service provision on young people with disabilities. As a student with a disability, I can assure you that our lives are significantly impacted by the decisions made at the federal level. 

I was especially excited to hear that President Elect Biden has a commitment to fully fund IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The IDEA provides special education services to students across the country – students who, without these specially designed programs and services, would fall impossibly behind. The federal government’s funding of IDEA has historically hovered around only 15 percent. An increase of funding for IDEA would mean an investment in the future work force. We also learned that the incoming administration intends planned investments in special education teacher recruitment, as well as funding for colleges to better accommodate students with disabilities. 

A priority that I was especially excited about is a commitment to increased job training capacity for students with disabilities. If you look at data from KYPSO – the Kentucky Post School Outcomes Center – there are a number of factors that lead to a successful transition from high school to adult life for students with disabilities. Job training during that transition window prevents students from missing the chance to participate in paid, integrated employment in the community. 

What opportunities are you most excited about?

Being able to ask questions at the Transition Team meetings was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I asked the team about priorities related to special education and made sure they knew I was a student with a disability who benefited from special education services in my state. 

How does it make you feel when leaders give these opportunities to youth with disabilities?

First, it meant a lot to me that the Transition Team included youth in this process. High school students are on the edge of that leap into the future – where we apply to colleges or vocational training, make choices about a career path, and begin making financial decisions that will impact us very far into the future. Often, young people make these life altering decisions with very little decision-making experience! To be better prepared for life, students must learn to engage in their community, consider solutions for pressing issues, and work with people from all walks of life. Community-building activities are a way to practice skills that translate into every aspect of life. It is real-world experience that carries into our jobs and lives as adults. 

For youth with disabilities, this is even more crucial. Sometimes students like me who have a developmental disability may be a bit behind or have less experience than our peers. We may be hesitant to get out there and gain independence, or sometimes sheltered by our families. As we finish high school, our classmates take that leap into adult lives and sometimes students with disabilities are left with a widening divide between us. It is important that young people with disabilities are included every step of the way. We don’t want a divide that becomes so wide we can’t ever cross. Students with disabilities become adults who need a satisfying job, meaningful friendships, and access in the community.

What are some volunteer and job experiences that have prepared you?

I enjoy participating in KentuckyWorks, the state-wide effort to improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities. I also participate on Kentucky Protection & Advocacy’s Developmental Disability Board, where I serve as vice-chair. I had a summer job at the Human Development Institute working on the Inclusive Higher Education project. Probably most influential has been my participation in Autistics United Kentucky (AUK), a group led by and for people who have autism. Though AUK, I have attended conferences and community events, and have even presented as a speaker. 

How will this leadership experience help you accomplish your goals?

I am glad that this opportunity insures that people in leadership positions have the advice of students with disabilities as they create policy. Students with disabilities are a significant part of the student population, as they age, a part of society. It is essential that they are not afterthought.

What are some of your best skills?

I think my best trait is self-acceptance. As a person with a disability, it’s important that I can easily accept myself for who I am and share my real self with others – rather than masking my disability. I can attribute this to a supportive family as well as great teachers over the years who have been comfortable talking about disability. It is impossible to have confidence without self-acceptance. 

Grayson Kemplin

What have you done to build your skills?

Once you are happy with yourself, the next step is to reach out and become part of something beyond yourself. Volunteering and being involved in community activities has been instrumental in further developing my skills. 

What suggestions do you have for other students to help shape policy?

Start local – is there an issue in your school or district that is important to you? You can attend your school’s site-based decision meetings or even a district school board meeting. If there are needs in your community that you feel strongly about, you can join local organizations – there are many that would benefit from the perspective and effort of a student. Often young people have the energy and enthusiasm to really benefit a cause. 

Other Leadership Examples