On the fourth floor of Bond Hall, Haley Graham sits at a computer desk applying for a job, something she has never done before.
Graham accredits this accomplishment to the Starting Today Empowering Peers through Uniting and Participating (STEP UP) to Leadership Advisory Council.
Made up of youth and young adults both with and without disabilities, the group focuses on employment, education and self-advocacy, among other issues which persons with disabilities face.
Graham, the vice president-elect of the council, serves as a volunteer at the Institute for Disability Studies at The University of Southern Mississippi, where the council is led.
Unaware of the exact type of disability she has herself, Graham does not mind stepping up to the plate when it comes to educating the public on the disabilities of others through recreational skits.
“I play a character where people are calling me names,” she said. “I pretend to get mad and throw my purse.”
The skit focuses on the use of the “R” word, which has a history of being negatively used to describe individuals with mental disabilities.
Sitting beside Graham is Latoya Olive, a senior social work major who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of four. But she refuses to let that stop her from enjoying life and pursuing her goals.
Above all, Olive values independence the most. She wishes people would ask her if she needs help before getting involved, instead of assuming she cannot do for herself.
Sometimes it is the simple things that make a big difference. Olive explains that she can open doors on her own.
“We need to feel as independent as everyone else,” she said. “It’s important for people to understand that just because a person has a disability doesn’t mean that they are any less of a person.”
She wishes the stigma was not in place. The organization’s staff liaison, Jerry Alliston, has been at the Institute for Disability Studies for almost nine years, supporting youth and young adults.
Five years ago, Alliston had a grant project where he needed to have a youth council. After his project was complete, Alliston still saw a need.
He advocated for the youth council to remain and it developed into the STEP UP to Leadership Council.
Alliston credits his parents, both with disabilities, for keeping him energized and motivated to advocate and support development of disability programs.
“Every job I have had has been focused on disabilities,” he said. Along the way, he realized that it was his passion.
Recreation plays a big part of the council’s programming. The council has been involved in wheelchair basketball and other recreational sports.
During the summer, the council is planning to have an Olympic day and encourages the support of the community.
On Thursday, May 1 the council will host a fundraiser at Movie Star Restaurant in Oak Grove. The deadline to purchase tickets is Friday, April 25. For more information, contact Jerry Alliston at 601-266-5979.
According to the USM website, the council is a subcommittee of the overall Institute for Disability Studies Advisory Council, known as the Community Partnership Advisory Council (CPAC). Anyone is invited to apply for membership on the council because everyone has a voice.