Shaping the Future: LEND Scholar’s AUCD 2023 Experience

Each fall, the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) gathers their network members for a conference in Washington, D.C. Their shared goal is to advance policies and practices that improve the health, education, social, and economic well-being of all people with developmental and other disabilities.

The Human Development Center is proud to participate in the conference by sending our Louisiana LEND and Interprofessional Preparation Program scholars as well as various HDC staff and faculty to connect, share, and grow with our national disability community. The 2023 AUCD theme was “Emerging Leaders: Shaping the Future.

We asked LEND scholar and self-advocate Jakeel Abdullah to share his AUCD experiences with us.

Jakeel wearing conference name-badge, a black blouse, and black floor-length skirt stands next to the AUCD 2023 Conference sign.

Overall, how was your AUCD experience?

My overall experience for AUCD was that of amazement. The ambiance and sense of camaraderie really made me feel at home with like-minded self-advocates and professionals. Attending AUCD is an experience that truly helped me refocus my self-advocacy journey, while building memories and connections with people across the country that empower the disability community.

What topics did you find interesting at the conference?

Many of the topics at AUCD were interesting, but a few impacted me the most. Firstly, “Mirror Me – Gamified VR for Building SEL Skills via Mirroring and Attunement” by Krestin Radonovich, PhD and Michael Stauffer interested me because their presentation and demonstration showcased exactly the type of work I have a passion for, which is blending virtual realities to assist those with disabilities. Finally meeting someone who is doing exactly what I want to do was a memorable experience.  

Jakeel wears VR headset smiling while holding the VR handsets up to his chest.

My next favorite was “The Arkansas Autism Partnership Statewide Early intervention Services for Children with Autism Access to Services Impact of Intervention Growth of the Workforce” by Renee Holmes, RN. As someone who lived in Arkansas for a number of years, it was a nostalgic feeling meeting someone who knew the schools I went to and the neighborhoods I grew up in. Seeing the work that professionals are doing in Arkansas’ disability community was a good experience and really made my day.

Jakeels stands next to Renee Holmes as they smile in front of her research poster.

What was your experience connecting with other professionals and advocates at AUCD?

I originally thought it would be difficult to connect and often felt timid to approach people. However, these individuals truly made my AUCD experience memorable. Of the many connections I made, here were the most impactful:

  • It was a pleasure speaking with Anna Heinzerling (pictured below) with the University of Minnesota who is also a LEND fellow and a Licensed independent Clinical Social Worker.
  • I was fortunate to meet International Orator Kiran Singh Sirah (pictured below), past president of the International Storytelling Center (ISC), producer of the National Storytelling festival, an advisory member at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Scotland.
  • I met Drake Bauer with the University of Minnesota, a professional who happens to be a Community Abstractor for the Minnesota-Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (MN-ADDM) project at the Institute of Community Integration (ICI).
  • I spoke with Jeanette Córdova who is in leadership at AUCD. She is also on the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.
  • Lastly, I enjoyed connecting with Michael Thornton of the University of Arkansas who is a professional and a self advocate like myself. Michael is also a faculty advisory for the Arkansas LEND program. 

I remain in contact with many of those I met at the conference. I continue to feel the solidarity and camaraderie we shared at AUCD, and I’m all the better for it. Despite what I originally thought, connecting with others at the AUCD conference is an easy experience. There is someone every step of the way who will not only interact with you but truly connect with you on both a professional and personal level.

What was your big takeaway from the conference?

My biggest take away was that a network for emerging leaders exists. Through the AUCD network, I can make connections that better not only myself, but my community as well.

What is one thing you aim to bring to your own advocacy in Louisiana?

I aim to bring the awareness and knowledge of the various topics I encountered back to Louisiana. Ultimately, I aim to create a dialogue that bridges Louisiana to other states and creates forward momentum in our mindsets at home.

About Louisiana LEND

Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) Programs are interdisciplinary leadership training programs federally funded through HRSA’s Maternal Child Health Bureau. There are 60 LEND programs with at least one in every state. The Human Development Center hosts Louisiana’s LEND program.