Molly Ridgeway’s career goal is to make a difference in the lives of as many children with disabilities as she can. As a senior at Maryville College, she’s already doing that.

Since last spring, Ridgeway has been interning at the East Tennessee Technology Access Center in Knoxville, whose mission is “to connect people with disabilities in East Tennessee to the adaptive technology tools and services they need to live with maximum independence and dignity.”

She heard about the ETTAC through Maryville College’s annual nonprofit fair, which is held every spring and provides opportunities for students and community members to learn about nonprofit missions, service or volunteer opportunities, and internships or employment opportunities.

Ridgeway, a child development and learning with teacher licensure major from Florence, Ala., said she was drawn to the organization for its mission — and because she connects with students with disabilities. Ridgeway has a nonverbal disability and uses American Sign Language and text-to-speech technology to communicate.

“It’s a good fit for me because I understand people with disabilities,” Ridgeway said. “As a person with a nonverbal disability, I can relate and understand the struggle of having a disability to overcome. I enjoy encouraging the students to overcome their disability, and I enjoy watching my students improve. I can also be a role model for students because I am an almost-graduate from Maryville College.”

Ways to assist

During her internship, Ridgeway assists in a variety of different ways, including volunteering at Starting People Along the Road to Knowledge, an after-school program for young adults with disabilities that focuses on self-advocacy, recreation and pre-vocational skills. Through SPARK, she helps with job skills and learning skills, facilitates game night and teaches lessons on a variety of topics, such as goal setting.

“I also help a child with his typing skills every Monday night at the Maryville College library,” Ridgeway said. “He gets frustrated (with handwriting), so I found another outlet for him to use to communicate. Although typing has been our main focus, he and I have volunteered at Asbury Place, a retirement home in Maryville. For our Christmas party, we went to see ‘Wonder,’ a movie about a child with mandibulofacial dysostosis — a genetic disorder that affects the face. It is important for disability students to see how others overcome different struggles like the character Auggie.

“From SPARK, I met another student with whom I go out in the community to the movies, the mall and walking at the park,” Ridgeway continued. “He does not have much of a social life outside his parents and ETTAC, so I am trying to help him get more involved with the community.”

Lorrie Crockett, Ridgeway’s supervisor at ETTAC, said Ridgeway is a “huge asset” to ETTAC’s programs, and she is grateful for Maryville College’s relationship with Blount County United Way Helpline, which helps connect MC students with United Way-supported agencies like ETTAC.

“Molly is eager to try new technology and then takes it out to try with students, and because of Molly, one of our students is looking at new options to communicate. She is becoming a real mentor for that student,” Crockett said. “Molly also volunteers for SPARK, and she is working with one participant’s family to encourage them to allow the young man to do things like go to the movies without them. Because Molly is a peer, the family is listening to Molly. It is hard for them to imagine their grown child as an adult, and Molly is changing their perspective about possibilities.

“Molly asked ETTAC if she could teach lessons on self-advocacy, and she created lesson plans and drew from her own experiences,” Crockett continued. “This lesson has so much more impact coming from someone who is dealing with similar issues. The group was playing a game, and every participant answered the question ‘What do you want to be the boss of?’ in the same way (they wrote the answers down, so no one knew what the others answered): ‘Myself.’ ‘Me.’ ‘My life.’ Molly isn’t just telling them they can do it; Molly is showing them they can do it and facilitating so they can do it, too.”

Ridgeway also has been using her passion for helping people with disabilities on the state level. Senate Bill 524 and House Bill 462, which advocated for the Tennessee State Board of Education to implement ASL textbooks and curriculum and allow the course to satisfy foreign language requirements in Tennessee schools, passed the Tennessee General Assembly unanimously on April 24, 2017, and was signed by Gov. Bill Haslam on May 4. Ridgeway and fiance Josh Anderson, Class of 2018, actively worked for its passage throughout the spring semester, recruiting bill sponsors, speaking to legislative committees and granting media interviews. She and Anderson wrote the bill during the 2016 Tennessee Intercollegiate State Legislature.

After graduation in May, Ridgeway plans to attend graduate school at the University of Tennessee to pursue a master’s degree in special education. One day, she hopes to start an international nonprofit to help people with disabilities around the world. Every year since her freshman year at Maryville College, she has gone on a mission trip to Jamaica to assist the Jamaica School for the Deaf through an organization called Servant’s Heart, which Ridgeway learned about from a friend at MC.

“Other countries do not have the same laws and policies for specials needs as the United States,” Ridgeway said. “In Jamaica, children with disabilities are often hidden and underfed. The average student who enrolls at Jamaica Christian School for the Deaf is about 12 to 14 years old. My future nonprofit will help create laws in different countries and help the schools for special needs children.”

Melanie joined The Daily Times in the early 90s and has served as the Life section editor since 1993. A William Blount and UT alum, Melanie is generally the early arriver who turns on the lights in the newsroom.

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