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Success Stories >> Amber Keohane’s Story

Amber Keohane's Photo

Amber Keohane, a graduate of Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, is currently employed at the DC Center for Independent Living. Amber was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at a young age and grew up in Texas. Late last year she moved to Washington and accepted her current position as an advocate for people with disabilities.

Early Life and Health

Advice for youth going through transition:

It is very important to go to your IEP meetings and tell them what you want. Even if you might not know all the right words to say, just tell them what you want. That way they can help you get through.

I have cerebral palsy, but we don't think I was born with it. We think I got it when I was nine months old. I stopped breathing and stopped doing the stuff I had been doing before. My body is severely affected—I need help with all my daily living activities. My speech is also affected, but I still have all my brain power.

Education

My parents are divorced. In my early days, my dad had custody and I lived with him. I think I was in special education then, but I think they were going to put me in regular classes. Later, my mother got custody of me. When I went to school in that district, they also put me in special ed, and it took my mom two years to get me out. I was the first child in a wheelchair to be mainstreamed in that system, so I was the first one to do everything.

I was in all regular classes from the time I was in sixth grade. I was basically out of special ed and making A's and B's, but they didn't tell me that I had to take a test to graduate and get an actual diploma. Luckily, a teacher I had said, "Wait a second, Amber, you want to go to college, right? You need to take this test." The school administrators didn't want me to take the test because they thought I would bring the school down. It's one of those tests like the "no child left behind" thing where they get money if some percentage of students pass, so they didn't want me to take it because they thought I would fail. I went to Austin, the state capital, and took the test. Of course, they were all shocked. I was like, "Hello! I'm on the A/B honor roll. How do you think I got there?"

I loved college. It was a life-changing experience. I went to Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. I hadn't even known that school existed, but my mother searched online for the top 10 schools with disability support, and Edinboro came up at #3. My mom made me apply. Once I got in, we visited campus and found they had great disability support, like personal care attendants (PCAs) on campus around the clock and transportation on and off campus. They just had everything. And it wasn't segregated—it was a normal university. They had about 500 students with different types of disabilities, and I was just glad that I wasn't going to be the only one anymore. I decided that that was where I wanted to go, but my mom said, "You can't go. It's too far away." I had been in vocational rehabilitation in Texas since I was 14, so everybody knew that I was going to college. But when it came time for me to go, they said, "Wait a second. We're not going to pay for you to go out of state. I got into some schools in Texas too but they didn't have the disability supports and transportation. How was I going to get back and forth?" Deep down I believe my mother wanted me to go to Edinboro, but I'm her baby and it was so far! To overcome this problem, we drove there and she stayed with me for two weeks. We also had to deal with the financial aspect of college. Texas Voc Rehab didn't want to pay because the school was out of state. My mom and I wrote to Austin, the state capital, and made it clear that it was the best opportunity and that Texas did not offer an equivalent program. They paid what they would have if I was in Texas. In order to cover the rest, I got scholarships and student loans.

Social Development

Elementary school was OK; I felt like I was just like anybody else. But in junior high school, things started to change, and I didn't know why. People started treating me differently. Now that I look back on it, I think that it was just my age and my perception of the way things were supposed to be. But some of it was kids being mean. I hated high school. I wanted to get out of high school so badly. One thing I found that really helped me was getting involved in theater. I think that's really what saved me from depression. But I excelled in high school—it wasn't the academic part I didn't like.

Independent Living

Once I got to college and was on my own for the first time, I realized I had book sense but there were certain things I didn't know. I had to learn how to do laundry. Even though I didn't know how to do it, I had to tell somebody how I wanted it done. A couple times when I first got to college, I would do my homework, but then the PCA wouldn't put it back in my backpack. So I had to realize that I had to be the one to say, "Please put that back in there!" Even now, I have to ask people, "Will you please vacuum?" Otherwise, they won't do it.

Advocacy

Growing up, I had a friend who had intellectual disabilities because of her CP. She knew what was going on around her, but she thought like an eight-year-old. When I met her in elementary school, she didn't even talk. People would talk to her like a baby; they would talk baby talk. I was only five years old at the time, but I thought, "Nobody talks to me like that," so I just started talking to her, and she started talking back. I thought I broke her. I don't think I taught her how, but I think I gave her a reason to talk. She is the reason I got into the disability movement.

Employment

I looked for a job for a year and a half after college. I had about 15 interviews and got only a part-time job at a parent training center doing their newsletter. I wanted to get out on my own, but I knew I needed a full-time job to do that. My family was in Texas, and part of me wanted to stay there because that's where my supports were. However, another part knew that I actually needed to get out of Texas because, after being in Pennsylvania and seeing what other people were getting, I saw how lacking the services were for people with disabilities in Texas. I decided to broaden my horizons. Also, when I got out of college, I was engaged, and I wanted to get back to my fiancé, who was still in school. I started looking in Pennsylvania because that's where he grew up. Looking on the Internet, I found the DC Center for Independent Living along with a couple other independent living centers that were hiring. It also helped that my mother works at an independent living center in Texas, so I was always aware of them. She had been working there since I was 12, and I had done volunteer work. So I filled out the online application, and they called me for an interview. I didn't think they were going to call me back because nobody else had. I kept e-mailing and saying, "Have you reached a decision yet? Because I really want this opportunity." My supervisor George called me for a second time and started asking me questions like, "How big is your wheelchair?" That's not an interview question. He said, "You got the job. Can you start next week?"

They gave me a month, so I had to find a place to live and get PCA care all within a month. I started working on November 6th, the day after my birthday last year, but I had some kinks to work out. Even though I started working then, I wasn't in the office until about two weeks after that. I went into the office, but they let me take care of what I needed to take care of. I had to get hooked in with vocational rehab here so that they could help me pay for my PCA care. My mom was here for three weeks because we weren't sure if all this would go well—it happened so fast. Part of me really wanted it, but part was scared and still is because my parents are still helping me quite a bit.

At DC Center for Independent Living, we provide four core services. We help people with disabilities find housing by giving them resources for housing. We also do advocacy legal services, teaching people about their rights according to the ADA and telling them what they should do if they are being discriminated against. We also provide peer counseling, which is people with disabilities helping other people with disabilities. I do that pretty much every day, and I also have a peer counseling group for women that meets every other Thursday. And our last service is independent skills—we train people in daily living skills. One example is our travel training service that teaches people how to get on the bus and the subway rather than take Metro Access. I also do intakes, taking people’s basic information like address and disability, and community outreach.

I have been trying to start a group for young people with disabilities, but I need youth to tell me, "OK, this is what we want to do." I don't want to assume anything because I my transition experience was eight years ago and in a whole different state.


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