Chloe Nicol is a self-advocate with disabilities who helps Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center (MDLC) spread the word to other youth with disabilities about their rights and the resources available to them. She has volunteered with the Mankato office, and was recently featured in Disability Rights and How to Vote, a video produced by MDLC’s Into Adulthood project.

“Nobody knows what you need more than you do,” Nicol says. “You’re the best advocate you could have for yourself. Especially in the disability community it’s important for everyone to advocate for themselves so their needs get met and they have a better life. I think that’s good advice for everyone, not just people with disabilities.”

Into Adulthood

That outlook is the driving force behind Into Adulthood, a project that seeks to support young people with disabilities as they transition into adulthood. Assistant Supervising Attorney Kristina Petronko has taken the lead on this project, joined by Legal Assistants Cate Cavalier and Hanne Goetz, and Staff Attorneys Beau RaRa and Kelsey Mize. RaRa and Mize divide their time between MDLC and Legal Aid’s Youth Law Project, bringing a wide range of experience working with youth.

“For youth with disabilities, navigating state and county systems has never been easy,” Petronko says. “We want to provide them with the entire spectrum of information they need. We also want them to understand that MDLC is not just about bringing lawsuits. We can bring professional legal tools when needed, but we also provide self-advocacy skills and information.”

MDLC views housing, education, employment, and vocational rehabilitation as pieces of the same puzzle for youth moving toward independence. Into Adulthood’s collaborative process, seeks creative ways to inform young people of their options.

“It’s important to have as many information sharing avenues as possible,” Nicol notes. “Everyone learns differently, and it makes sense to provide different formats.”

Youth also have wide disparities in access. Some have phones and others don’t. Some have parental support and others are homeless. Black and Native students, who are disproportionately diagnosed with emotional behavioral disorders, tend to have less access to in-person services from schools. In recognition of differences and disparities, the project produces resources in multiple formats, including podcasts and videos.

Providing Comprehensive Resources

“The youth we work with are often so focused on their immediate needs, they don’t have time to sift through every resource that’s out there,” says Mize. “We put together all of the information in one place in a variety of formats, so youth can access that as a starting point.”

Rather than presuming what youth and their advocates might need, Into Adulthood takes an attitude of humility, with a careful focus on listening and learning their way into relationships. They seek to partner with self-advocates and with youth-serving groups, including Trans- and Native- serving organizations.

“The disparities that already existed have been magnified by the pandemic,” RaRa says. “I worked with a young Native client on an eviction case who didn’t have good technology at home and didn’t know where to start. Her case came to us through a community partner. Without representation, she would have been facing the risk of going to court in person and possibly becoming homeless.”

Promoting Self-Advocacy

The goal is to build self-advocacy, empower youth to stand for their rights, and back them up when they need support or legal representation. The project has inspired MDLC to brainstorm creative ways to partner with youth, lift their voices, and get the message out to others.

“I began to see value in myself once I started studying disability rights,” Nicol says. “Often as a community we get dismissed or devalued by various groups. It’s important to realize your own value and advocate for yourself.”

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