MARSHALL - When Lyz Lano of Marshall broke her neck in a car crash in 1999 at the age of 16, it changed her life forever. She is paralyzed from the mid-chest down.
"It affected my arms - I can't move my fingers," she said.
Lano, who is originally from Norwood-Young America, moved to Marshall to attend Southwest Minnesota State University. She graduated with a degree in psychology and would like to pursue graduate studies in biopsychology in the Twin Cities.
Wanting to know more about other people with disabilities and to learn to advocate for herself and others, Lano enrolled in the Partners in Policymaking advocacy training program and graduated in May.
Lano said she didn't know what to expect going in, but after taking it she feels "enlightened and empowered."
Partners in Policymaking is a leadership training program that began in Minnesota 26 years ago. It "teaches self advocates and parents about the power of personal and group advocacy and best practices in the field, to change the way people with developmental disabilities are supported, viewed, taught, live and work," according to its website, mn.gov/mnddc/pipm/. The program has expanded nationally and internationally.
The class met one weekend a month for eight months - September through May, excluding December, at the Marriott Inn in Bloomington, Lano said.
"Each weekend has a different theme - history, inclusive education, customized employment and county, state and federal government," she said. "We had speakers come in and we visited the Capitol in St. Paul."
Lano said she learned that disability benefits and Medicaid are often "cut to try to balance the budget - these are services that people absolutely need and can't live without."
She learned who people need to contact "in your own community, state - and at every level."
She has already been more active than before she took the program.
"I've been following what's going on in the state Legislature and a couple times I have contacted representatives about different issues," she said.
One big issue, she said, is employment for the disabled.
"Seventy-five percent of the disabled are unemployed," Lano said.
People on disability insurance are kept on a poverty level, she said.
"There is a lot of room for improvement," she said. "We are still marginalized by society and treated like second class citizens. With the proper supports we could be more self-sufficient."
She said the program was "a great experience - bonding with people who live the same things as you do so they understand."
A Facebook page has been set up and her fellow classmates keep in touch with each other and keep informed on legislative changes that affect people with disabilities.
"It's been a wonderful experience," Lano said. "I would definitely recommend it to others."
For more information about the program, visit mn.gov/mnddc/pipm/ or go to mngts.org/partnersinpolicymaking/index.php