Sally Sexton.

Capping a year of learning and interacting almost entirely online, the 29 graduates of ICI’s Minnesota Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (MNLEND) certificate program recently closed out their final ceremony with a few last words of their own.

“I am changed.”

“A place where we begin, but not where we end.”

“An astonishing amount of information.”

“Disability is not the problem. [Lack of] accessibility is the problem.”

“You’ve given me space to learn, and a voice to advocate for families like mine.”

“Take this knowledge and pass the mic.”

The online gathering celebrated not only the fellows’ learning about disabilities and disability advocacy, but also showcased the projects each one pursued during the year. They included fine-tuning a national survey of family caregivers, helping create a roadmap for distinguishing between symptoms of trauma and presentation of neurodevelopmental disability characteristics, and conducting a survey of dentists exploring the extent to which they treat patients with NDD. Another team focused on inclusion efforts at faith-based organizations. Others focused on the intersectionality of disability with characteristics including race and sexual orientation.

“Participating in MNLEND has shaped me as a leader more than I could have anticipated,” said Sally Sexton (pictured), a fellow who helped develop the Minnesota Inclusive Higher Education Consortium, a learning community that aims to expand postsecondary opportunities for students with intellectual disability.

MNLEND is an interdisciplinary leadership training program spanning approximately 14 disciplines across the University of Minnesota, funded by the U.S. Maternal & Child Health Bureau.

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, in a recorded message, lauded the graduates for delving into the deep inequities that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed. “I know the past months have been incredibly challenging,” she said. “But each and every one of you rose to that challenge.”

State Senators John A. Hoffman (Democrat) and Jim Abeler (Republican), as well as Deeqaifrah (“Deeqa”) Hussein (MNLEND Fellow, 2017–18), a director of special education for Minneapolis Public Schools, attended the event and addressed the graduates. 

ICI Director Amy Hewitt acknowledged the difficulties fellows faced in navigating their learning experience and the rest of their lives during the pandemic.

“Despite the barriers and hurdles, I know you’ve made lasting connections,” said Hewitt, part of the MNLEND leadership team. “Your tenacity…and commitment to improving the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is a true sign of the leaders you are and will continue to be.”

Andrew Barnes, a University of Minnesota Medical School associate professor and a member of the MNLEND leadership team, urged fellows to take their experiences during the year and turn them into learning opportunities for others.

“Stay alert for a ready and willing student to appear before you,” he told the fellows. “Speak to a group. Serve on a board. Write new laws. You’ll do all this and more because you are the good in the world, and you are the teachers now.”