Tech EXCEL Student Advocates for Legislative Change
This legislative session, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed into law a change to the Official Code of Georgia that alters just a few words, but makes a big statement.
House Bill 343 amends the code to replace the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” with “intellectual disability.”
Kurt Vogel, a student from Decatur in Georgia Tech’s EXCEL program, served as an advocate for the legislation. Vogel worked with legislators and testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in March about the bill.
The change is a show of respect to those with disabilities and brings Georgia’s legal language in line with that used by the federal government.
Vogel will soon begin his third year in Georgia Tech’s EXCEL program, but this was his first foray into politics.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” he said. “It gave me an opportunity to explore something I hadn’t thought about before. I haven’t been involved in any advocacy or awareness efforts before this.”
Vogel became involved in the legislative effort through a fellowship with Georgia State University’s Center for Leadership in Disability. There, he met Stacy Ramirez, director of Georgia State’s office for The Arc, an organization that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Ramirez encouraged Vogel to use his voice on behalf of others.
“I haven’t had the personal struggle some people have with the word ‘retarded,’ but could speak out for others,” he said. “Each person with a disability has something to contribute to society. There’s also space for them at the table.”
Vogel wants to pursue a career in technology and enjoys those aspects of his program, but now, he may try to find ways to weave advocacy into his future plans.
“I like interacting with people and don’t just want to be behind a computer screen all day,” he said.
In addition to his fellowship with Georgia State, Vogel is completing a second summer internship with the Centers for Disease Control, and interns part-time at CATEA, Georgia Tech’s Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access in the College of Design.
“I might not have had those opportunities if not for being part of the EXCEL Program,” he said.
EXCEL (Expanding Career, Education, and Leadership) is a four-year inclusive college program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) leading to two separate Certificates. The first is a certificate in Academic Enrichment, Social Fluency, and Career Exploration, and the second is a certificate in Social Growth, Leadership, and Career Development.
“In just two short years, I’ve watched Kurt grow as a student and mature as a man,” said Ken Surdin, director of the EXCEL program. “Kurt’s ability to advocate for himself has blossomed into advocating for others.”
The EXCEL program provides a structured and supportive postsecondary educational opportunity for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, giving students the opportunity to develop academically, socially and professionally. Vogel’s experiences outside of the formal EXCEL curriculum are stretching the boundaries of what EXCEL students can do on and off campus.
“Kurt’s insights have shaped the future of EXCEL for incoming students,” said Marnie Harris, peer support program coordinator for EXCEL. The program will welcome its third cohort of students this fall.