At Education Week, Corey Mitchell interviews Nicki Vander Meulen, an autistic person serving on the Madison (WI) Metropolitan School District Board of Education.
How do you connect with your constituents?
I'm the only board member who visited all 50-plus schools in our district. I've met with parents, [parent teacher organizations] and the students themselves. I need to know how their lives work and I need to come to them. They don't need to come to me. We have this assumption, if you have a problem, you have to [go] to the board. No, the board [should] come to you. We're the public servant, not the other way around. I've actually [met] with large groups, constituents of very different backgrounds because I'm willing to go wherever they need me to go and meet. If I could do that without a driver's license ... I don't see why others can't.
Are accommodations and attention given to your needs as a school board member?
Yes, they are because I have a district that will provide the accommodations, but not every [school] does. I want to bring it up to the forefront that this is a major issue, It's a civil rights issue, it's an equal rights issue. Sometimes the message doesn't get there.
(Editor's Note: In December, the Hartford Courant wrote about Sarah Selvaggi Hernandez, a former Enfield, Conn., school board member with autism. She sued the school board, alleging she was discriminated against because of her disability.)
Would you encourage other people with disabilities to serve on their local school boards?
Absolutely, I find this incredibly enriching. In order to have a seat at the table you have to play a role politically, as well. These [are] major, major decisions on how resources are used and how children are educated. The only way you can fix the system is from the inside out. You need to hear unrepresented voices and oftentimes individuals with disabilities have little or no contact and that needs to change.