Anyone can benefit from mentoring, but I cannot stress enough that girls and young women with SCI need women mentors with SCI. Women mentors with SCI can help girls with SCI with their development, academic achievement and self-esteem to improve high school graduation rates and employment rates as adults.
Studies show us that girls with disabilities have lower self-cognition and lower self esteem. Studies also stress that girls with disabilities have a higher need for positive adult role models with disabilities. There is less visibility of successful disabled women in our culture and there are more limited “socially sanctioned roles” for women with disabilities in our communities. Positive role models have powerful effects on young people. Role models help young people with personal growth, development and improve outcomes for social and economic opportunities.
The Benefits of Mentoring
Mentoring supports positive outcomes, including social development, academic achievement and improved self-confidence among higher-risk young people. “Higher-risk” or “at-risk” young people include young people who face significant personal and/or environmental challenges who are less likely to transition successfully into adulthood and achieve economic self-sufficiency. Youth with SCI are “higher-risk” because they endure a traumatic experience and experience both significant personal challenges and environmental challenges.
What the Data Shows
Evidence demonstrates that the challenges that youth with SCI experience can impact their likelihood to transition into adulthood and achieve economic self-sufficiency. For example, data from the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center reports on individuals who had a 9th – 11th grade education one year post injury. Approximately 38 percent of those individuals had not graduated high school five years post injury and approximately 20 percent had not graduated high school ten years post injury. An important determinant of employability in persons with SCI is educational achievement, particularly after injury. Among adults with SCI, both employment and participation in school are associated with a higher quality of life.
Notably, approximately 20 percent of spinal cord injuries (SCI) occur in children and adolescents and only 19 percent of people with spinal cord injuries are female. Because individuals with SCI are predominantly male, it is more difficult for girls with SCI to find women mentors with SCI. While peer-mentoring groups exist, many girls with SCI still feel isolated and alone.
What the Parents See
In my role at Disability EmpowHer Network, I work to connect girls with disabilities with successful disabled women mentors. Parents of girls with SCI in our programs reporte that their daughters feel isolated, alone, depressed, and insecure, especially since COVID began. One parent told us that her daughter is “the only girl or woman in a wheelchair that she knows. She’s never met someone like herself.”
Another parent shared that one year after her daughter’s injury “her grades are suffering severely… She rarely gets to see friends due to COVID and I believe sometimes she is a bit depressed. It’s a lot for her at 11 to handle.” Still more, a different mother shared “My daughter is 14 and suffered a spinal cord injury and paralysis following a car accident approximately 1.5 years ago… Being a teenager, in general, is hard and I see her struggling with self-esteem and motivation.”
Letter from a Role Model Program
After being paired with a Role Model with SCI, both the girls and the parents gave positive feedback. Parents report that their daughters feel more confident and more willing to try new things. One girl told us, “I feel like I could relate to somebody.” A mother told us “Thank you so much for all you do. It is SO needed for these girls and the families.” Another parent shared “[She] was so surprised to get her letter!!!! What a sweet thing to do for a child who is dealing with such a circumstance. I am grateful♥️ This may be a penpal for life!!”
These are just a few examples of how receiving just one letter from a Role Model with SCI has impacted girls with SCI so significantly. Imagine how impactful it would be for the girls to have a long-term Pen Pal relationship with their role model or if they met their role model in person. It could be life changing!
As a woman who was born with my disability, I’ll never know what it’s like to experience an SCI and have my whole world change. I can talk about what it’s like to live as a wheelchair user, but I cannot completely relate to girls with SCI. That’s why I am so thankful for the women with SCI in our program who serve as mentors and change these girls’ lives!
 David DuBois, Jean Grossman and Carla Herrera. The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles. Public/Private Ventures distributed by MDRC, 2013.
 Koball, Heather, et al. (2011). Synthesis of Research and Resources to Support At- Risk Youth, OPRE Report # OPRE 2011–22, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
 Id. at 104.
 Teresa L. Massagli MD, Brian J. Dudgeon MS, OTR, Brian W. Ross, ME. Educational performance and vocational participation after spinal cord injury in childhood. 1996.
 American Spinal Cord Injury Association. Facts on Pediatric Spinal Cord Injury. Available at https://asia-spinalinjury.org/committees/pediatric/pediatric-committee-news-and-resources/pediatric-spinal-cord-injury-facts/
 National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, University of Alabama at Birmingham, 2020 Annual Statistical Report – Complete Public Version. Available at https://www.nscisc.uab.edu/Public/2020%20Annual%20Report%20-%20Complete%20Public%20Version.pdf
About Stephanie Woodward: Stephanie is a brand ambassador advisor for Quantum Rehab® and works as a disability rights activist. She has received many awards for helping communities become more accessible, as well as for her actions in fighting for the rights of disabled individuals as it relates to Medicaid and other support services. Click here to learn more about Stephanie.