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A Class with Special Purpose

Chris Gagliardi | Staff Writer

Every Friday for two months, Jessica Lax travels to New Brunswick for a class. This class isn’t the kind of class that you learn math, reading or writing in, but a class that teaches students to become a policymaking advocate for people with special needs. 

The New Jersey Partners in Policymaking is an 8-month leadership development and advocacy education program for adults with developmental disabilities and family members of children and transition age youth available. 

Lax discovered this class after receiving an email to be a part of the new class.

“Advocacy is important to this country for many people,” she stated. Lax decided to take up this class to improve her personal and professional advocating skills in her life.

“For people with special needs, they are the least recognized minority which is why this class is vital to this country,”  Ms. Lax also says. It has given her many opportunities to interact with people and teach her better skills and new information. 

Ana Caban-Van Woude, who is also taking this class, said that her role as a parent is vital. This is because she has a 15-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, so she feels this could really be helpful. 

She said, “I think for me,one of the most important and unique aspects of this program is that it has a significant portion of people who are self-advocates and in my perspective, has opened my eyes as to how important my daughter is treated and the comradery is also essential.”  

Among the goals of this program is to prepare the next generation of disability advocates to work toward meaningful change in this state. 

Jessica Lax in discussion with her peers at the Partners in Policy Making class in New Brunswick, NJ. Photo by Chris Gagliardi

According to the website, this form of class has specific goals: 

1) To Advocate for opportunities and support that promotes self-determination, independence, and inclusion in all aspects of community life. 

2) Be members of advisory boards and committees so that people with special needs can have the opportunity to address the needs that are not yet met. 

3) Work alongside policy-makers on a local, state and federal level and state agencies that can improve the quality of life for people who have physical or mental needs.

The purpose of Partners in Policymaking is to teach best practices and prepare participants to influence public policy and change systems so that the next generation of advocates can work in partnership with policymakers to create meaningful change. 

Participants selected for the program will learn about important areas for advocacy from nationally-known experts. Partners in Policymaking was created by the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities in 1987.  Since that time, Partners has been implemented throughout the United States and internationally. 

The New Jersey version of this class, which was started by The New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities (NJCDD), started Partners in Policymaking in New Jersey in 1996.  Since 2017, the program has been coordinated by The Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities, Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School through funding from the NJCDD. To date, more than 27,000 graduates across the country and more than 500 graduates in New Jersey. 

The current political climate, threats to Medicaid and the service system, the need and desire for increased inclusion, and challenges to the human and civil rights of people with developmental disabilities make Partners an important program.

The class lasts from September through April, and the classes cover topics like Social media being used as a tool for advocating on the issues for people with special needs and the history of Disability Policy & Advocacy along with Inclusive Education to Public Speaking and Grassroots Organizing. 

Jamie Zahid and Colleen McLaughin both run the program. 

Ms.McLaughlin said, “Through Partners in Policymaking, people with disabilities together with family members are taught about best practices and learn strategies to influence long term change based on a shared vision.  Partners participants are dedicated to a shared vision that promotes human and civil rights for people with disabilities and helps to create system changes in order to help support people with disabilities to live valued lives and become contributing members in our communities. The education obtained and relationships cultivated through Partners fuels a passion and builds momentum that leads to meaningful change.”

 If you have special needs either physical or mental and want to learn more about this class you can get in touch at: 1-(732)-235-9613 to get involved.

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