For most of his life, Blake Nelson didn’t know how he should view his disability.
The 23-year-old Graham resident knew his disability had a name — severe hard of hearing — but he never knew if he should talk about it.
“I was just really confused,” Nelson said. “The big problem was I didn’t really know what I should be with deafness. Should I consider myself a deaf person? A hard of hearing person? Should I even talk about it at all?”
When he was a student at Graham-Kapowsin High School, Nelson made the change from colorful hearing aids to clear hearing aids in an attempt to hide his disability.
“I kind of made that shift into — I’m just a normal person,” Nelson said. “I don’t have hearing loss. Don’t talk about it. Just read lips, don’t ask for clarification on anything. If you didn’t hear it, you’ve just got to roll with the punches. And obviously that didn’t work out because my grades suffered and my relationships suffered because I’d be mishearing everything.”
In his senior year at Graham-Kapowsin in 2012, Nelson’s family suggested he attend a conference called Youth Leadership Forum, a week-long overnight leadership training program for youths across the state aged 16 to 22 who have disabilities.
The program changed his life.
A statewide program
The Youth Leadership Forum, often called “YLF,” was started in 2000 by Debbie Himes, who recently retired from the Governor’s Committee on Disability Issues and Employment in the Washington State Employment Security Department.
The idea was brought to Himes through a California YLF program and is meant to teach its participants how to navigate the transition to higher education and employment.
For its 18th year this year, the program was held at Evergreen State College in Olympia from July 23-27 and had 33 delegates and about 20 volunteers. The program, which occurs every summer, gathers together campers, or delegates, to teach them leadership skills through various activities.
The activities are meant to foster leadership, teamwork and confidence. They include speeches from keynote speakers, a financial literacy workshop and a bike-riding session hosted by Outdoors For All Foundation, a Seattle-based organization that provides adaptive recreation to youth and adults with disabilities.
There is no cost to attend YLF; expenses are paid for by the program. Last year, the week-long program cost about $48,000, according to YLF co-chair Patricia Bauccio.
When Nelson joined in 2012, he was among other people his age experiencing similar — and vastly different — disabilities.
“You learn about all kinds of disabilities here that you really don’t see in school,” Nelson said. “I grew up being the only deaf person in school. So now I’m learning about (cerebral palsy) and deafness and blindness.”
The program encouraged Nelson to pursue a career in education. He signed a contract as a math teacher at Graham-Kapowsin High School this month, bringing back home what he’s learned over the years.
“I’ve learned how to really accept (my disability), really embrace it,” Nelson siad. “You should really let it out in the open and help other people learn about it and help other people understand it.”
Nelson’s fellow counselor, 27-year-old Rebecca Muchmore of Orting, is in her first year with YLF and also wants to become a special education teacher. Muchmore has a learning disability and grew up going to speech-therapy classes. She still has trouble pronouncing some words and controlling the level of her voice.
She sees herself in the delegates she leads.
“I want to be an advocate for (people) with disabilities and say, ‘Hey, I went through all this,’” Muchmore said.
One of those delegates is 19-year-old Tei-lei Erickson from Puyallup, who said she has social anxiety and depression. YLF challenges and engages her with others.
“I’m learning about other people and their disabilities and what they’re going through,” she said.
“I don’t think (kids with disabilities) realize that there are other people like them,” Muchmore said. “That there are other people they can go to and be like, ‘Oh I don’t have to worry about being alone.’”
To Nelson, the program has always been about encouraging the delegates to pursue their goals and to show them that resources exist to help them succeed.
“A lot of kids, they hear their entire lives that (their) inevitability is going to be in welfare (and) disability checks, and we’re trying to turn that train around,” Nelson said. “Our main goal is to make sure these kids can survive on their own, go to college, get a job … You can do anything you want.”
Within a day of the program, Bauccio sees growth in confidence of the delegates as they participate in teamwork activities and discussions.
“They start realizing there’s a bigger world out there,” she said. “They can really be an artist, a teacher, start a business. They find that the possibilities are endless.”