In a three-ring binder that sits neatly on a shelf in their home on Laurel Avenue, Laverne Debnam keeps records and mementos of her son Brent’s many achievements.
There’s the 2001 letter from President George W. Bush to honor Brent Debnam, then in elementary school, as a winner of the President’s Education Award. There’s the letter that paid tribute to his internship at NASA and another that recognized his service as a volunteer at the College Park Aviation Museum. There are numerous newspaper clippings that document his childhood as he fought to access appropriate services, and a 2013 community-led renovation of the family’s home to make it wheelchair accessible for him.
Soon to be added to the binder is a letter dated July 1 from Gov. Larry Hogan that appoints Debnam to a five-year term as a member of the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council. Debnam, who has cerebral palsy, will attend his first quarterly council meeting this month.
“The organization itself is basically fighting for inclusion for people with developmental disabilities and protecting our rights,” said Debnam, 27.
It’s a fight that Brian Cox, the council’s executive director, said Debnam is particularly well suited for.
“I’ve always found Brent to be somebody who’s not only attuned to the needs of individuals with disabilities, but who also looks toward the change that needs to occur and looks to be involved in that,” Cox said.
Maryland is home to an estimated 88,000 people with developmental disabilities, which include intellectual disabilities, autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, Cox said.
The Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council, founded in 1971, is a federally funded organization with an annual budget of about $1 million whose goal is to advance the inclusion of people with developmental disabilities. The council works with public officials to improve laws, regulations and services and also provides grant funding for leadership development and service improvement for those with developmental disabilities. Council members are appointed by the governor and are tasked with setting priorities for financial and staff resources.
Debnam’s journey to the council began when he was a high school student in 2008. He was an intern at People on the Go, an advocacy group that works with the Maryland General Assembly to review and evaluate bills in the legislature for their impact on people with disabilities.
It was through that work that he met Cox, and the two soon collaborated on advocacy projects. One such effort was a series of YouTube videos that featured Debnam and highlighted the fact that the state Developmental Disabilities Administration has about 8,000 people on a waiting list for services.
“It was another way that Brent found to be involved instead of just focusing on his own life,” Cox said. “He wanted to step up and impact the lives of other people as well.”
It is a lesson Debnam said he learned early from his mother, who encouraged him to speak up for himself and educate other children who might stare at him because he was in a wheelchair or because his speech could be difficult to understand.
“I told him, ‘The onus is on you to explain to others what’s going on,’” Laverne Debnam said. “I said, ‘Advocacy is probably going to be good for you. You have to tell others who you are and what you need.’”
Debnam said he is proud that he has taught himself skills – like brushing his teeth or using a microwave – that come easily to others. He said he likes to be challenged by people who don’t believe that someone with cerebral palsy can accomplish much.
“The way I grew, of course I know I had a disability, but I never pictured myself that way,” Debnam said. “I can do things anybody else can do 10 times better, except with adaptations. Honestly, I would get a kick out of proving people wrong.”
There have been several achievements recently. Debnam graduated in May from Bowie State University with a bachelor’s degree in communications. His interest is in emerging media and he plans to launch a podcast in the next several months that will connect Marylanders with disabilities with appropriate services.
His work with the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council will focus on a wide range of issues, he said, including employment, housing, transportation, medical services, child care, education and leadership. Debnam will be assigned to a council committee to work in depth on specific issues. Cox said he expects that Brent will “move quickly into leadership on the council.”
“My main goal is … giving my all to make sure people with developmental disabilities are greatly recognized within society and helping people go on to live a regular life,” Debnam said. “We should be giving them tools they need to be able to live their lives as freely as they feel.”