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The Northrups help others speak out

June 23, 2010
By YVONA FAST, Special to the Enterprise

Cheryl and Michael Northrup met in September 2008 at the New York State Self Advocacy Conference.

At the time, Cheryl was working as the regional field assistant for Self Advocacy Association of New York (SANYS). Michael, who works as the self-advocacy coordinator for Franklin County Community Services, was representing the organization at the conference.

"Simply put, self-advocacy is speaking out," Michael said. "SANYS helps people with developmental disabilities to speak up for themselves and for others."

Article Photos

Michael and Cheryl Northrup and their dog Shelley
(Photo — Yvona Fast)

Mike and Cheryl both have disabilities.

"I have a traumatic brain injury (TBI)," Michael said. "When I was 10 years old, I had a seizure which eliminated my short-term memory completely. If I get distracted, five minutes later, I won't remember what you said."

Mike uses post-it notes to compensate for his short- term memory issues.

In spite of this, Michael received a bachelor's degree in psychology from Syracuse University.

"Going to college was grueling," he said. "I didn't have any accommodations for my memory problem. I was able to get extended time for exams because I also have visual issues. It was a 24/7 effort.

"In July 2004, I had a cerebral aneurism. A blood vessel in my head burst. I was lucky that I didn't die and didn't even lose a single thing due to the aneurism. It required two surgeries (I have an 8-inch scar) and lots of physical therapy. I believe God's hands operated on me through the surgeon's hands, because I succeeded in regaining full function. God, time and physical therapy healed it. It was amazing!"

Cheryl also has a disability.

"I was born with full mild cerebral palsy (CP)," she said. "My muscles are over-stimulated, tense all the time, unable to relax. Sometimes my walking is compromised, so I use a cane. I also shake at times."

CP affects muscle tone, body movement, coordination and motor skills.

Cheryl began working for Steve Holmes, New York's executive director for Self-Advocacy, in 1990 while living in Glens Falls.

"I taught disability awareness to people in the community," she said. "As the regional field assistant, I worked with self-advocacy groups, starting new groups and supporting existing groups."

She was honored with the Fourth Annual Assembly Republican Excelsior Award for Excellence in 1996 for her work. Given on Disability Awareness Day, this award recognizes those who have overcome challenges, honoring their extraordinary achievements and service to their communities.

Cheryl and Mike got to know each another through video conferences sponsored by SANYS.

"We both talked a lot in the groups," Cheryl said. "Then we called each other on the phone and talked more. At the conference in Albany, we finally had a chance to meet. Our love grew.

"We used to talk on the phone for as many as six hours at a time," Mike adds with a grin. "I had a $180 phone bill one month. Then I discovered digital phone service."

"When my mom met Michael, her first comment was, 'That's a really good- looking guy,' After she got to know him she knew we were right for each other," Cheryl said.

In November 2008, Cheryl quit her job and, with her faithful companion Shelley (a 12-year-old sheba-inu husky mix), moved to Saranac Lake to join Michael. Mike and Cheryl were married by Pastor Harold Clark on Oct. 3, 2009.

"We were united: 'The two shall become one.' (Ephesians 5:31)," Cheryl said.

The couple are members of the Saranac Lake Baptist Church, where Mike plays the piano. They will both help with Vacation Bible School (as they did last year) from June 28 to July 2.

Cheryl volunteers for Sunmount, filing and working at one of the residences in Saranac Lake.

Michael works as the self-advocacy coordinator for Franklin County Community Services.

"I volunteered on the Franklin County Community Services Board (ComLinks)," Michael said, explaining how he got his job. "After six months, my boss got to know me and discovered she had a need for self advocacy. She was able to hire me as an intern through the Sunmount internship program. At the end of the internship, she created the new position, self advocacy coordinator for Franklin County Community Services, making my job permanent in September 2009."

Michael starts self-advocacy support groups and follows them, just as Cheryl used to do when she worked for SANYS.

"I help people with disabilities speak up for themselves - that's what it all boils down to. I work with developmentally disabled people. They know what they want, but they can't express themselves. Services are supposed to be about us. I also interview people and talk about issues for our Speakin' Out newsletter, which comes out six times a year."

He is also the author of two books, "The Padded Cell" and "Escape from the Padded Cell."

"My first book, 'The Padded Cell,' is about the over-protectionism of people with disabilities by the system today," he explained. "The system puts too many restrictions on what people with disabilities are allowed to do. It doesn't allow us to live freely enough."

That book was published by in 2005.

Michael's second book, "Escape from the Padded Cell," came out a year later in through "That one is more autobiographical," he said. "By sharing my own experience, I show people how to succeed in life in spite of disabilities. The Apostle Paul said, 'For Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.' (2 Cor. 12:10) There is strength and grace in hardship and disability."

"'Nothing about us without us' is a slogan often used by disabilities groups working for greater meaningful involvement," Cheryl said. "It tells policymakers, 'Don't exclude us - include us when you're making decisions that impact our lives. We need full, direct participation by individuals with disabilities in community life and government decisions."



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