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Group helps those with disabilities help themselves

September 22, 2012
By CHRIS KNIGHT - Senior Staff Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

SARANAC LAKE - A group of local residents are restarting a self-advocacy group for people who have disabilities.

Michael and Cheryl Northrop, and Tom Techman, all of whom live in Saranac Lake, said the group will meet at 6:30 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month at the Saranac Lake Baptist Church.

A local self-advocacy group, which Michael Northrop helped create, had existed in Saranac Lake from late 2007 to 2010, but Northrop said it was a struggle to keep it going and get enough people to attend the meetings, so it fizzled out.

Now Northrop said he has more free time to build support for and spread the word about the group, so he thinks it has a better chance of getting off the ground. He's also got plenty of help this time from Cheryl Northrop, his wife of three years, and Techman, both of whom have professional experience in self-advocacy: Cheryl in Glens Falls and Tom in the Albany area.

"It's like a new beginning, a rebirth of this group," Michael said.

Self-advocacy is often referred to as the civil rights movement for people with developmental disabilities. Put simply, it means people with disabilities taking control of their own lives, including being in charge of their own care, without undue influence or control by others.

The Northrops and Techman said they're restarting the group because they believe there are a lot of people with disabilities, like themselves, in Saranac Lake who could benefit from self-advocacy. Michael Northrop has short-term memory loss due to a traumatic brain injury as a child. Cheryl Northrop and Techman both have cerebral palsy.

"I think there's a lot of people that are capable of living independently with the right supports being in place instead of just being shoved into these big places, like group homes," Michael Northrop said. "I think that with the right supports, a lot of people could have more freedom in their lives and make more progress.

Self-advocacy can take many shapes and forms, Northrop added, and the extent to which someone can take more control of his or her life may depend on the severity of the disability. But anyone with a disability is invited to join the group, he stressed.

"Self-advocacy can involve getting a better job or having more control over what you eat," Northrop said. "It can be so simple. Someone with profound MR (mental retardation) is probably never going to be able to live on their own, but they might be able to tell you, 'I don't like broccoli' or something like that, as opposed to having to eat it."

Cheryl Northrop said one of the biggest challenges to promoting self-advocacy comes from people with disabilities who are afraid of speaking out about their caregivers.

"Sometimes the staff are afraid that something that's talked about at a self-advocacy meeting is going to get back to an agency and hurt them," she said.

"What they don't realize is there's really very few mistakes that you can't recover from," Techman added.

Michael Northrop said the current system of care often babies people with disabilities, something he's written about in his book, "The Padded Cell."

"It doesn't allow people to learn from their mistakes enough," he said. "It thinks it's doing a great job by keeping people safe, which is OK, but there's really valuable mistakes in life that you can benefit from learning. Like driving a car or moving out on your own for the first time. It's about dignity and risks."

The new, Saranac Lake-based self-advocacy group's first meeting, which will be a re-start party, is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at the church. Moving forward, the group plans to host regular meetings, activities and events, invite speakers and make presentations to local governments on issues like handicapped accessibility.

The group has a Facebook page under the name "Adirondack Advocators." Its email address is


Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or



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