Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Toni Van Laarhoven
Toni Van Laarhoven

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez
Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

To obtain a print-quality JPEG of this photo, contact the Office of Public Affairs at (815) 753-1681 or e-mail

News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

June 5, 2007

Project MY VOICE aims to improve future
for youths with developmental disabilities

DeKalb — A three-year project between Northern Illinois University and Indian Prairie School District 204 aims to empower youths with disabilities to become their own advocates toward “happy and self-sufficient lives.”

Toni Van Laarhoven and Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez, professors in the Department of Teaching and Learning, and Traci Van Laarhoven-Myers, a special education teacher in the school district, are co-directors of Project MY VOICE.

Funding comes from a $340,000 grant from the Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities.

“Because of the fact that these students have cognitive impairments, people just automatically assume, ‘Well, we know what’s best for you,’ and then they kind of carve out their future for them,” said Van Laarhoven, who joined the NIU College of Education in 2001.

“There’s a big push with legislation now that’s saying that we do need to make sure students have a voice in their IEPs (individualized education plans) – that they do have the opportunity to have some self-determination and self-advocacy when it comes to their future outcomes.”

MY VOICE – the acronym stands for Multimedia for Youth to Voice Outcomes Individually Created for Empowerment – will work to help these students ages 16 to 21 to express their needs and their dreams at meetings where parents and educators typically make such decisions.

Van Laarhoven and Johnston-Rodriguez will work directly with pre-service teachers in the special education curriculum and with educational personnel and students in the high school programs. Van Laarhoven-Myers will coordinate activities between Indian Prairie’s in-service teachers, related service personnel, students and parents.

Work began June 1 to develop the tool kits and training materials for pre-service teachers, in-service educators and parents. Training sessions for teachers and pre-service teachers will start in August, and identification of priority students follows immediately in the fall.

In the end, the trio will create a model and instructional guide for nationwide dissemination.

Although the key word in the project’s full name is “multimedia” – students will speak directly to video cameras about what they want from life – the activities go far beyond creating video testimonials.

Participating students also explore options that are available to achieve their dreams, evaluate the pros and cons to make informed decisions and finally choose goals that reflect their dreams and preferences. They then can “show” everyone what they would like to accomplish with their lives.

The need is huge, Van Laarhoven said.

“We can really do creative things for kids who maybe aren’t able to speak for themselves. Through technology, students will have the ability to get what they want across to teachers, parents and the community,” she said.

“Teaching the students how to identify and communicate what it is they really want to do with their lives is the self-determination piece,” she added, “but then they have to tell people and develop a plan of action. That’s the self-advocacy piece.”

Van Laarhoven’s own history with such activities seems to guarantee success.

“When I was teaching high school, we tried to get our students to come to their own IEPs, and they froze. They couldn’t say what they wanted to,” she said. “We used to videotape the kids to have them practice, and it was amazing how well they could do when we videotaped. We’d say, ‘Look at this! You can tell everyone what you want out of life!’ ”

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