By Jessica Swarner
Photo by Loren Worthington
The peer mentoring program at Ability360 has been building relationships among people with disabilities for 25 years. Through this program, peer mentor volunteers work with individuals to help them achieve their independent living goals. April Reed, who has coordinated the program for 10 years, works with mentors representing a wide range of ages, from college students to participants in their late 80s. The mentors are also very diverse in professional backgrounds and life experiences. Mentors work with individuals, “mentees”, age 18 and older with any type of disability. Mentees may include those who were born with a disability, developed a disability over time or became disabled suddenly by injury.
In addition to the one-on-one mentoring element, Ability360 also offers a group-mentoring session and a women’s group meeting, both of which operate in support-group-like settings and meet once per month. Mentors also provide educational presentations to business, schools, or community groups on topics such as disability awareness and self-advocacy. Around 40 peer mentors help with the many components of the peer mentoring program.
Anyone with a disability who has reached or is on their way to achieving independent living can apply online to become a mentor. Applicants also provide references as part of the initial vetting process. Qualities that Reed and Ability360 look for in mentors are the ability to take responsibility, the habit of making proactive choices, effective communication, organizational and listening skills and sociability.
Peer mentor applicants are asked to explain what knowledge or resources they could share or what skills they can teach comfortably to others. If the applicant is selected as a mentor after the in-person interview, then fingerprinting and a background check will be completed. The newly-selected mentor completes the peer mentor training class, learning about the Ability360 Center and its myriad of programs, as well as how to handle certain situations within the mentoring partnership, such as dealing with loss or assisting someone with setting realistic but beneficial goals. Once all training is completed, the mentor is matched with a mentee who is newly disabled or is seeking support with his or her disability.
Mentors may be matched with someone who has the same disability as they do, or with someone who has a very different disability if they have similar interests and goals in mind. There are currently 20 to 25 mentor/mentee matches in the program. Pairs are free to decide how often they want to meet and what their goals are, although they are encouraged to touch base at least twice per month.
“The peer mentor program is definitely a service that is needed,” Reed said.
“It’s a service that can be situation-changing for someone…you just see people connect in a way, share information in a way, that they haven’t before.”
Some mentoring pairs simply share stories and emotional support, while others also have more concrete ideas in mind. For example, a mentor who is working or volunteering himself helping a mentee practice interview skills, or a knowledgeable mentor assisting a mentee learning to navigate public transportation. A mentor who is active in the community could help a mentee get involved in positive social activities and support groups in order to meet new people and expand the mentee’s social network.
Reed said she hopes to reach out to more people with disabilities and let them know they don’t have to live in isolation, especially since one of the program’s greatest benefits is allowing people with disabilities to be around others who may better understand them and their goals. “That’s something we’re always working on, letting people know about the program and what we offer,” she said.
Ability360’s program is a nationally-recognized peer mentor model, and April and her colleagues provide training and consultation to other Centers for Independent Living as they develop their own peer mentoring programs.
Kelly Buckland, Executive Director of the National Council on Independent Living in Washington, DC, says Ability360 is “one of the premier Independent Living Centers across the country,” and he fully supports peer mentoring programs such as this one. He explained that these programs provide people with disabilities access to information most useful to them. “I think there is a level of conversation that goes on among peers that you can’t get with anyone else,” said Buckland.
Sami and Marion: An Ideal Match
Mentor Sami McGinnis was matched with Marion Scalise about a year ago, and the pair said they have made a lot of progress during their time with Ability360’s peer mentoring program.
McGinnis has Coats’ disease and Retinitis Pigmentosa and Scalise has macular degeneration. While they are different diseases, both result in vision loss.
McGinnis said she has had vision problems since she was a teenager and has learned how to incorporate assistive technology for individuals with low vision into her daily life, but Scalise said she experienced a rapid drop in vision a few months ago and had difficulty coping.
“Sami’s got all this knowledge and to me it’s all brand new,” Scalise said. “She’s been very, very patient. It’s been wonderful.”
After they were paired, McGinnis said she began helping Scalise with learning assistive technology and performing tasks such as using the new oven in her house and operating her new voice recorder.
One morning Scalise said she went out to use the pool, got locked in by the pool fence, and quickly realized she could not see the keyhole to unlock the door. Later she called McGinnis to describe what had happened, and she expressed feeling helpless. Fortunately, McGinnis has a strategy she often uses to locate things like keyholes or outlets without relying on vision, and she shared that technique with Scalise who now swears by it.
After Scalise expressed disappointment that she struggled with knitting, one of her favorite hobbies, the pair found out about a crocheting technique that is possible using only fingers and no needles. Scalise said she now continues to make scarves this way.
The pair said they also volunteer at Ability360 about twice a month and enjoy doing “girly-girl” things together, including shopping.
“We have a lot of fun, actually—maybe too much,” McGinnis said.
“Every time we get together, we do one stupid thing,” added Scalise.
The pair shared that one time they were meeting each other at a mall, and although they were speaking to each other on the phone and were only a few feet away, they had trouble finding each other.
“I have never laughed so much in my life,” Scalise said.
The women also participate in Ability360’s group-mentoring programs, which they both said they greatly enjoy.
They especially like meetings in which the participants are encouraged to discuss and share ideas on a certain topic relevant to their lives. Past topics have included the power of words, things they are grateful for, the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and what they call other “empowering” subjects.
Recently, Scalise herself was a guest presenter at the mentoring group. She shared on the importance of family and friends as a support network for people with disabilities. Scalise expressed that she had never imagined she could be a public speaker and now finds that she enjoys it. She said she looks forward to more opportunities to mentor others.
The pair attribute much of their learning and growth in the program, both through peer and group mentoring, to the efforts of volunteer program manager Reed, who Scalise said is “to die for.”
Over the past few months, McGinnis and Scalise have become very close through the peer mentoring program and say they are thankful that Reed brought them together.
Scalise said that McGinnis’s aid helped her emotionally and allowed her to think, “Maybe with this disability I can have a good life.”
Scalise also praised her mentor’s patience and her mentor’s ability to take her time.
“She’s better at staying patient than me,” she said.
“Marion doesn’t know a stranger,” McGinnis said, describing her partner. “Marion likes to go 100 miles per hour, and we’re trying to get her to go 90.”
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Student, ASU Barrett the Honors College
Jessica Swarner is a junior at Barrett the Honors College at Arizona State University. She is studying political science and journalism. She is a DJ for KASC Blaze Radio 1330AM and a research assistant in a lab that studies cyberpsychology.