“Nothing about us, without us,” is a motto that Shayana Mendes, an advocate for disabled students and American River College student with Asperger’s syndrome, strongly believes in.
“People need to stop saying, ‘Oh, yeah, we know what you’re about,’ and not make any kind of decision for people with disabilities without asking for their feelings. Their voice is important, too.”
The 29-year-old Glendale native has been a student at ARC for about 10 years, pursuing degrees in Spanish, sign language, theatre arts, nutrition and law, with a focus on disability rights.
“It’s my persistence. That’s why I’m still at it here,” said Mendes.
“We don’t need to be fixed or cured,” says Mendes about disabled students. “We’re not ashamed of who we are.”
She wasn’t always such an advocate. She found out about her Autism at the age of 12 and was harassed and bullied throughout grade school.
Her mother always stood up for her, until one day Mendes decided she would no longer be the victim. Instead she would fight for the rights of other disabled students.
Asperger’s syndrome is a milder form of Autism, a group of developmental differences that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 88 children in the U.S. is discovered to be on the Autism spectrum.
Socially, Mendes struggles understanding social and indirect language cues, such as sarcasm.
“I have a hard time understanding the difference between if someone is being sarcastic and joking around or if they’re truly upset,” Mendes explained.
Disabled Student Programs and Services (DSPS) at ARC caters to around 2,780 students, including students with Autism.
“With disability services it’s really looking at how individual disabilities affect each person and then identifying accommodations and services that try to mitigate those impacts of the disabilities,” said Jason Ralphs, supervisor of DSPS at ARC.
Friend and DSPS student Randall Sly said, “The really nice thing about Shayana is she does have goals and ambitions. She’s had to advocate for herself in order to keep her dreams and her goals.”
Mendes works at as an independent contractor at Supported Life Institute where she is president, and as secretary of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network of Sacramento.
Mendes has found many ways to deal with her autism, one being acting.
“I feel like I’m better able to get my point across when I’m on stage.”
She wishes everyone realized that disabled students are just as capable as other students.
“Just because it takes us a little longer to do something, or it’s a little more of a challenge for us to get specific things accomplished, doesn’t mean we’re not capable”
Mendes hopes to continue pursuing law and to become a lawyer for people with disabilities.
“It angers me how the government takes advantage of people with disabilities and gets away with it.”
For now, you may see her at a more local government. She regularly attends Associated Student Body meetings, ensuring the voice of DSPS is being heard.