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Ginnie Graham: Broken Arrow brothers honored for being pioneers in self-advocacy for people with disabilities

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Reposted from Tulsa World

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By Ginnie Graham News Columnist

Brothers accepting Lifetime Achievement Award

James and Joseph Meadours will be receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award on Thursday at the annual TARC Advocacy Award and Volunteer Recognition

Going through high school, James Meadours was kept separate in special education classes from his Broken Arrow classmates, never really getting to know them.

After graduating in 1986, he was put in a 10-bedroom group home and felt isolated from the world, being at the mercy of other adults.

Joining a singles group at Christ the King Church changed that.

“That was one of the first steps in breaking out of my shell,” Meadours said. “Back then, I was shy and to myself. I didn’t know how to advocate for myself and let people control my life and did what they thought was best for me.”

Then he reached out to an advocacy group for people with developmental disabilities. Because workers at the group home would not take him to meetings, the advocacy group’s volunteers picked him and taught him about independent living.

“I discovered how to help myself,” Meadours said. “I got more confidence and more confidence and then could help other people like myself with disabilities and their families.

“It’s not about me. It’s about the system. Through the advocacy movement in Oklahoma, I was able to build my leadership skills.”

On Thursday, Meadours and his brother, Joseph, will be receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual TARC Advocacy Award and Volunteer Recognition event at the Marriott Tulsa Hotel Southern Hills.

The nonprofit was founded in 1952 by parents of children with disabilities who did not have many options outside institutional care. The group advocates for a high quality of life for Oklahomans with developmental disabilities and their families through education, empowerment, support and advocacy.

The Meadours brothers, who grew up in Broken Arrow, are considered pioneers in the self-advocacy movement for people with disabilities. More than 20 years ago, they were key in organizing the first People First program in Oklahoma and have since helped establish chapters across the country.

“The lives of James and Joe Meadours exemplify the success that people with developmental disabilities can achieve,” said TARC Executive Director John F. Gajda. “They never let the label and low expectations attributed to them by society limit their achievements, and each — in their own way — rose above this artificial ceiling to achieve success as active and involved members of our society, productive workers and leaders in the community.

“They didn’t just improve their own lives, though, but touched and improved the lives of many others. James and Joe unselfishly used their personal success to advocate on behalf of others with disabilities, serving as role models and mentors, organizers and trainers, and passionate advocates for the needs of all people with disabilities.”

James Meadours, 51, is now working as the treasurer of Texas Advocates — a group for people in that state with developmental disabilities — and volunteers in several other nonprofits. He has served as president of the national People First organization and has been a keynote speaker at events in at least 40 states.

A point of pride for him has been living on his own for 25 years.

After his term as national president, James Meadours worked in Louisiana and sadly became a victim of sexual assault. He testified against his attacker, who was sentenced to five years in prison and must register as a sex offender. Part of his volunteerism is with a Texas rape crisis center.

“I came out in 2007 about my survivor story,” he said. “A lot of times, people don’t want to talk about sexual assault and keep it to themselves. I’ve been a big advocate for survivors.”

James Meadours’ strength likely came from the confidence and lessons gained in his work for the advocacy groups.

“Self-advocacy is knowing how to speak out for yourself and others — what they want in their lives, dreams and aspirations,” he said. “It’s to have confidence in yourself, believe in yourself and have courage to stand up for something.”

His 50-year-old brother, Joseph, is working for the California People First chapter in self-advocacy.

Joseph said access to public transportation has been a dominating issue for people with disabilities.

“I like to go to shopping malls, visit friends and have different opportunities to keep me occupied and busy,” he said. “I don’t like to depend on my friends for rides.”

Coming back to Tulsa to receive the lifetime achievement award will be a special time, Joseph Meadours said.

“It will be something I’ll never forget,” he said. “I just hope it will educate people to see what people can do. If you have the right schools and right resources, you can be successful.”

James Meadours called the award “humbling.” It also made him think about his high school days. He went to his past reunions and describes the first couple as “doors partly open.” Last year, at the 30th reunion, he felt completely at home.

“My classmates have accepted who I am as a person,” Meadours said. “They’ve accepted who I was and know more about me through my advocacy work and see me as a viable part of the Broken Arrow class of ’86. Some of them are coming to my award ceremony.

“That’s been exciting because they want to be in my life. They see me as James and not my disability label.”