Thursday, July 14, 2011

Self-advocate pushing for change in law


from The Herald News:

When he’s not taking classes at MassBay, working at one of his three jobs or volunteering, Brian Heffernan is making sure that other young people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities get the same opportunities he’s had.

Most recently, Heffernan, 20, of Newton, has been advocating for a bill at the State House that would change the special education licensing requirements to provide optional advanced training for teachers who want to focus on transitioning children with intellectual disabilities into the competitive work force.

Newton resident Julia Landau, senior project manager for the advocacy group Massachusetts Advocates for Children, said the bill would allow more children with intellectual disabilities like Down syndrome and autism to become productive members in their communities.

“Right now three-quarters of the youth with disabilities in our state ages 16-26 end up in sheltered workshops or [day habilitation] programs or unemployed and we know that youth with disabilities when provided the appropriate transition planning and services can measure up with their potential and can live and work competitively,” she said. “That’s the difference between the tapped and untapped potential.”

Heffernan has been taking classes in courses like criminology, mass media and career and life planning at MassBay for the past two years through the school’s partnership with the Newton Public Schools. The Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment grant program allows public high school students with severe intellectual disabilities who are between 18 and 22 and have not yet passed the MCAS test the opportunity to take inclusive college courses aligned with a career goal.

“I’m really proud of the career and life planning class,” Heffernan said. “It made me think a lot about my career.”

During the school year, Heffernan takes public transportation from his house in Newton to the Wellesley Hills MassBay campus, takes general college classes with his peers and works out after school in the school gym. Last summer, Heffernan was looking for activities to join on campus and noticed that the college didn’t have a glee club like his favorite TV show, “Glee,” so he researched and sought out the required number of signatures to form his own glee club.

Heffernan said his classes at MassBay have helped him decide that one day he wants to have a career in the film or television industry. He’s already written a 52-page TV script, “The Heffernan Show,” loosely based on “The Cosby Show.”

“One day I got on my computer and just started writing,” he said, while walking around MassBay last week.

In between his busy class schedule at MassBay and camp during the summer Heffernan finds time to work as a host at Wally’s World in Fenway Park, as a bagger at Shaw’s Supermarket in Auburndale and as a guest speaker in the “Understanding Our Differences” curriculum in the Newton Public Schools. He speaks to graduate students about his disability at Brandeis, Harvard and Boston universities and during the summer he volunteers at City Hall delivering mail and stacking books at the Newton Free Library.

“He’s really remarkable,” said Landau of the Massachusetts Advocates for Children, in a phone interview.

Heffernan’s mother, Julie Hefferman, said that her son wants to continue to take classes at the college after he passes his English MCAS test. She said that once he passes the English MCAS test he will place out of the special education program in the Newton Public Schools, but will still be able to receive special education services at the college.

“We’ve had a partnership for the past five years with the [Newton schools] to give students with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to take college courses,” said Jayme Finstein, inclusive concurrent enrollment grand coordinator at MassBay. “The goal is to have the courses connect with future career goals. You spend your whole day on campus doing anything that any other student would do.”

Julie Heffernan said her son has flourished through his classes and the new friends he has made at MassBay.

“On Facebook, he has all these friends we’ve never met because he has this whole college life now,” she said.

Landau said she is hopeful that the bill will soon be voted out of the Joint Committee on Education.

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