Self-advocate Somoza visits Project SEARCH interns

by John Keenan, UNMC public relations | March 08, 2017

Image with caption: Back row, from left: Michelle Hagan, Cheryl Lux, Michael Lentz, Blake Hodgen, Matt Mulligan. Front row, from left: Ann Marie Joyce, Schala McGee, Anastasia Somoza, Vincent Lewis, Juwan Mountain

Back row, from left: Michelle Hagan, Cheryl Lux, Michael Lentz, Blake Hodgen, Matt Mulligan. Front row, from left: Ann Marie Joyce, Schala McGee, Anastasia Somoza, Vincent Lewis, Juwan Mountain

National disability rights advocate Anastasia Somoza, who was in Nebraska in February to speak before state senators and constituents at the ARC of Nebraska senatorial dinner, made a side trip to the Munroe-Meyer Institute the following day to speak with members of this semester's Project SEARCH interns.

The interns had watched video clips of Somoza, one from when she was a 9-year-old advocating for her twin sister to be in the same classroom as herself. At such a young age, Somoza knew how important it was to talk to elected officials such as President Bill Clinton about the unjust situations individuals with disabilities sometimes face. Her advocacy and self-determination paved the way for her sister and many others to be able to study in an integrated classroom with minimal supports to be successful. In 2016, Somoza also spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

During her meeting with the class, she answered questions and offered advice, taking time to learn how each member was doing in their job-training program. "My mission is to make it so that people with disabilities like us can be integrated into our communities, live in integrated settings and participate in everyday life, just like everybody else, but in a way that that's not seen as 'special' or 'cool," she said. "We will have succeeded once programs like this are more the norm."

An important part of her message, she said, is that both community support and individual effort are important.

"I was able to get as far as I did because I had the desire to, I wanted to be independent, and I started simply by figuring out things that interested me. And then I sought support from the people around me," said Somoza. She and her twin sister were born prematurely, both with cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia.

The result for Somoza included studying overseas, a master's degree from the London School of Economics and Politics, and nationally recognized advocacy work.

The group applauded Somoza when she finished her remarks.

"She's really cool," said Project Search intern Mike Lenz. "It's great she's here."

"I loved it, it was very inspiring," said intern Schala McGee.

"She's been a self-advocate for many years," said Tara Harper, Project SEARCH liaison. "I'm so glad she could join us to share with the group what her and her sister's lives have been like after that day in 1993 when she spoke to President Clinton about the right to be mainstreamed. Everyone has the right to be in the least restrictive setting possible and to receive a free and appropriate education."

Somoza called her visit to MMI the "definition" of why she does what she does.

"I became an advocate to make sure that people like me and people who are served by MMI gain the skills and the opportunity to live happy, healthy, productive, independent lives, to the extent that that's possible based on each individuals' set of abilities and skills."

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