People who do not have a disability or are not on the neurodivergent spectrum live in a seemingly gilded age, where therapy is glorified and romanticized as the ultimate solution to one’s mental health crisis or illness.
While most people’s past experiences are diagnosable, those who remain undiagnosed take for granted one significant factor that can help them overcome the complexities of their problems: their access to resources. This accessibility comes in educational equity, employment opportunities and the ability to be self-sufficient. While psychology research today mostly surrounds skyrocketing anxiety and depression rates in previously neurotypical people, it is vital to discuss what this modern-day anxiety and depression brings for previously neurodivergent individuals.
In my work and research between the Philippines and the United States, I found vast differences for students with disabilities that need immediate attention. Neurotypical people must understand that therapy by itself is not equivalent to having the agency and opportunity to work, be educated or live by oneself.
In my home country, the Philippines, the government’s National Expenditure Program, or NEP, recently approved a zero-Philippine-peso budget for particular needs or neurodivergent students. Because I lead a Philippine-based nonprofit, Talang Dalisay, focused on mental health and psychology, I wanted to investigate further.
While home in Manila, I visited a partner school of my nonprofit in the heart of Quezon City called the Grain Foundation for Persons with Disabilities, or PWD, Incorporated. The school also functions as a foundation that takes in action and collaboration from external individuals and organizations without affiliation with staff or students.
I reached out to the school and its excellent team since one of their scholars was a student Talang Dalisay was able to financially support in 2019. Eager to learn more about Filipino PWD, I visited and toured the school. Speaking with teachers and administrators was an eye-opening experience — they expressed their struggle as underrepresented and underfunded educators.
Rizalyn Magtagñob, a 23-year-old special education coordinator with five years of experience, shared with me the main struggles of students in and out of the classroom is self-expression and independence. She shared that many students were primarily struggling with self-expression; particularly sharing their challenges. I found that this stems from students heavily relying on their guardians for most of their social interactions instead of doing it on their own.
“Being a special education teacher in this sector is very challenging. We receive low wages and a lack of vacation to rest and relax before preparing for the next school year. There are not many benefits, yet teachers are very hands-on,” Magtagñob said. “So they should be appreciated and respected. Not only them, but anyone passionate and hardworking.”
I also spoke with Marjorie Lebatigue, head of the school’s marketing department. This educational sector in the Philippines also receives little to no support from local government and legislation. The wealthy Philippine philanthropic community also has little to no knowledge of these educators’ experiences with PWD students. As disappointing as it was to have no budget for these children in the upcoming school year, it was no surprise for me as a researcher that this was the country’s final decision.
Aside from my findings in the Philippines, I found working in the nonprofit sector in California — particularly with other psychologists and neurodevelopmental programs — there is a similar need for these programs.
A few weeks after arriving back in California, I chatted with the Supported Education to Elevate Diversity, or SEED, Scholars Program Director, Beth Foraker. Established in 2020, SEED operates under UC Davis and is California’s first college program for students with intellectual disabilities.
SEED aims to be a working and transitioning cycle to help a student attain a degree in four years, after which they are guaranteed future employment and community support.
Foraker shared that in pushing for this program, she needed a unanimous vote from the UC board and the approval of Davis’s chancellor. Additionally, Foraker had to find many advocates, most of whom are parents of students now in the program. Learning more about this program and meeting the mentors and students behind it pushed my belief towards this equity to grow stronger. I met with the students in person during their move-in day and spoke with two of the SEED scholars’ mentors, Maggie Zheng and Sarah Brashear, on their experiences with the students.
“The scholars are such down-to-earth people. They always help each other no matter the circumstance and situation,” Zheng shared. “It shows how much potential these students have when given a chance. They’ve all come into a vast university with few connections on campus but quickly grew into this community that continues to expand each year. They stay true to what they want to do in college and have goals and aspirations for their futures beyond UC Davis.”
Brashear also shared why she wanted to be a mentor in the program.
Namely, her experience living with an aunt who had Down syndrome influenced her interest.
“I had much empathy towards individuals with intellectual disabilities because I had seen that they are capable of so much. However, the world often looks down on them and does not allow them to share their gifts, especially in the workplace,” Brashear said. “This experience has also strengthened my resolve that wherever I end up working in the future, I will help to ensure my employer works to hire people with intellectual disabilities.”
My experience chatting with Foraker, Zheng and Brashear only added to my firm belief that more diverse programs create a significant difference and impact on PWD students.
However, the program is one of very few universities and colleges with a shared goal of providing neurodivergent students with higher education. This initiative is a fine example of a well-rounded program that can give students tangible access to their education, employment and peer or adult support in their community.
My experience chatting with Foraker, Zheng and Brashear added to my firm belief that more diverse programs create a significant difference and impact on PWD students.
While there is a shared similarity for more programs that help PWDs on the West Coast, there is still a distinct difference between neurodevelopmental programs in developed and developing countries.
What makes the United States different from the Philippines are the funding opportunities and community awareness that the Philippines severely lacks. The United States has a more attentive legislative system that can give public schools or universities the agency to initiate a program such as SEED Scholars.
On a more personal note, being able to visit their physical learning facilities and seeing how the number of people supporting the two groups of students are disparate is saddening and motivating. There is undoubtedly a need for more action over awareness for these children. As I continue to work towards this said action, I also encourage you to start advocating for the neurodivergent by being more mindful with your words and diligent with your actions to create more empathic, open-minded spaces around us.