Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 21, 2011

Palo Alto student finds her voice

Gunn graduate spreads the word on Disability History Week

by Chris Kenrick

As a Palo Alto student with disabilities, Sara Moussavian thinks history books should tell about Ed Roberts just as they tell about Martin Luther King Jr.

Moussavian has been persistent in contacting local educators to let them know that, starting this year, California officially observes Disability History Week every October.

"People should know about inspirational leaders like Ed Roberts," said Moussavian, a Gunn High School graduate who now studies at Foothill College.

Roberts, who died in 1995, is a hero in the disability-rights movement.

Severely disabled from polio, he shunned the role of victim while a student at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, asserting his right to accommodations needed to live a productive life.

Roberts went on to launch Berkeley's Center for Independent Living, a prototype for hundreds of such centers now active around the world, including the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center.

Like Roberts, Moussavian endured bullying in her younger years in Palo Alto schools but developed strategies that helped her ignore it.

And like Roberts, she has begun to find her voice as an educator and advocate for people with disabilities.

Moussavian was in fourth grade when her family moved to Palo Alto and she was placed in special education at Barron Park Elementary School. Later, she was mainstreamed into regular classes, usually assisted by a classroom aide. She has had multiple surgeries for congenital problems and has difficulty using her hands, walking and processing lectures.

"I think the teachers were very understanding — and to some extent, the students were as well," she said of her overall experience.

But bullying became something of a problem at Barron Park and later at Terman Middle School.

"At the beginning it hurt, but after awhile I learned to kind of let go of it," she said. "I developed a support system for myself — knew me for who I am."

But it wasn't until two summers ago that Moussavian decided to get active in speaking out for herself.

She and fellow students in a 2009 summer program in Sacramento decided to push a legislative resolution proclaiming the second week of October Disability History Week. The campaign was coordinated with similar efforts in 23 other states, which now recognize some form of "disability awareness" in October.

In California, a joint legislative resolution proclaiming Disability History Week each year during the second week of October passed last year.

Moussavian has followed up by spreading the word to local schools and news outlets.

She recorded a radio show in Oakland, which is yet to be broadcast, and got an article in the Paly online publication The Voice.

"I wasn't much of an advocate in high school, but now I have a passion for making a difference for folks," she said.

Moussavian, who now lives with her family in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, hopes to move into a campus dormitory next year when she transfers to a California State University or a University of California campus.

For inspiration, she looks to people like Micah Fialka-Feldman, a special-education student who won a legal battle to live in on-campus housing at Oakland University in Michigan.

Moussavian plans to become a social worker to advocate for other people with disabilities.

"When I was in high school, I had teachers and aides who were kind of advocates, but going forward that's going to change," she said.

"In a four-year college and in the workplace, I realize that the advocate for me is going to have to be me, myself and I."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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