SSD Removes Barriers for Students Like Jennifer Taylor
Services for Students with Disabilities serves more than 1,200 students each year with a range of primary disabilities--including ADHD, Traumatic Brain Injury, learning or psychological disabilities, and hearing, visual, and mobility impairments. Learn more about SSD by reading the article from the DDCE 2009 Impact Report.
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UT Senior Jennifer Taylor Makes Her Mark on Special Education in Texas
“Never see the disability first, but see the child first.” That is the advice University of Texas senior Jennifer Taylor gave a group of 1,000 public school administrators and teachers in January at a conference of Texas Council of Administrators in Special Education (TCASE).
Another piece of advice: “When you limit your students, don’t be surprised when they don’t achieve at a level beyond that limit. By limiting them, you are really disabling them in a different way.”
At 22, Taylor has already made an impact on the Texas education system. In March 2009, the corporate communications major was appointed by Governor Rick Perry to serve on the Texas Special Education Continuing Advisory Committee. The committee advises the Texas Education Agency (TEA) on a number of issues, including the unmet educational needs of children with disabilities. Taylor is the youngest person to ever serve on the committee and the first student to ever serve on a government board of disabilities.
"The biggest joy is being able to advocate for someone who doesn’t have a voice." --Jennifer Taylor
“I feel like I came in through the back door,” said Taylor of her appointment. One day when she was home in Houston, she answered the phone. Her mother, who serves on the Developmental Disability Council, was away for the day. On the line was Gaby Fuentes, the appointments manager in the office of Teresa Spears, director of government appointments in Governor Perry’s office. Taylor and Fuentes ended up discussing disability issues that day and Fuentes asked if she would be interested in serving.
Because of her work on the committee, Taylor was asked to serve on the Texas Education Agency’s Teacher Preparation Forum with 40 professors from around the state, and then named Student Success Story of the Year by TCASE.
“I definitely bring a younger point of view to the committee,” said Taylor. “I also bring a younger understanding of technology to the group and bring the perspective of someone who has been through the system.”
Taylor was diagnosed as dyslexic with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms at an early age. She “outgrew” the ADD and OCD tendencies by high school, but continues to wrestle with the academic challenges associated with dyslexia. Throughout college, she has been assisted by Services for Students with Disabilities, part of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, to receive accommodations such as extended time on exams, but sometimes that isn’t enough. For example, one semester last year she had four tests the same week. She failed three of the exams that were multiple choice but aced an essay test. She worked with her professors, whom she praises as “fantastic,” and retook the tests, ending up with two As and one B in the courses.
The bright, articulate Taylor is accustomed to speaking out. For years, she has been an advocate for her older sister, Julie, who has severe physical and cognitive disabilities. She explains that Julie is now 28 and functions physically at the level of a baby who is 6-12 months old. She has seizures and cannot walk or talk. But Julie knows how to spell and do math problems and can answer yes and no by raising her eyebrows if the answer is yes. She graduated from high school at age 22, something Taylor views as miraculous and credits to a tutor Julie had—a tutor who had high expectations.
Of her service to the committee and the forum, Taylor said, “I advocate for both of us [herself and Julie], but the biggest joy is being able to advocate for someone who doesn’t have a voice. Julie can never tell anyone her frustrations; I was able to speak about the things that limited her. And being able to speak out on her behalf is an honor.”
Taylor explained that having a disability can be a daily struggle. “You need people to keep encouraging you. My dad was my biggest cheerleader. He would tell me, ‘you are brilliant.’ Although I would always say ‘you’re my dad,’ having someone to encourage me, believe in me, helped me to persevere and fight for my intelligence really.”
“Jennifer is such a good example of the students we work with everyday,” said Krista Schutz-Hampton, director of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD). “She is extremely bright, hardworking, and what our office would call a fighter. Jennifer receives equal access and opportunity by working with SSD, allowing her to show that she can do great things.”
Taylor is preparing to graduate from UT at the end of this semester with a concentration in business and Spanish. Her work on the committee may well influence her career path. “The experience has made me think a lot about going into government. It has impacted how I look at candidates, how I feel about education and funding and given me a desire to be more active in politics,” she said. Taylor explained, “On the committee I am part of something that has impact; I have a voice; it goes somewhere and just doesn’t stop there.”
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