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Peer mentoring is helping local people with disabilities follow their dreams

Ashley Mathy, a professional self-advocate and mentor
Erin Gottsacker
Ashley Mathy, a professional self-advocate and mentor

Seated around a long table, a group of about five people fix their eyes on Ashley Mathy.

“Alright guys, we’re going to go into class now,” she announces. “We’re going to talk about boundaries. What do you guys think boundaries are?”

Ashley Mathy is a professional self-advocate and mentor. She holds classes like these weekly to teach people with disabilities how to advocate for themselves, so they can live safely and freely in the community.

Through her work she has encouraged people to get the jobs they want, to attend meetups independently and to build lasting friendships.

“That’s all you can ask for is seeing these people grow and succeed all the time,” she says.

Mathy is so successful, in part, because she understands what the people she teaches are going through.

She has a disability herself.

“I don’t tell people I have autism unless they ask me, but I think that is a crucial part of [this work],” she says. “They feel like since we both have disabilities, there’s that comfort level of knowing when they want to speak up. I don’t intimidate them.”

Mathy’s work as a peer mentor is part of a larger, federal project being administered throughout Wisconsin and a select four other states called Living Well.

It’s a program designed to help people with disabilities be safe while living and working in their communities.

Jenny Felty is the director of Headwaters, Inc., an organization in Rhinelander that supports people with disabilities across northern Wisconsin.

She says one of the main goals of Living Well is to train peer mentors like Mathy to deliver a self-advocacy curriculum to other people who experience disability.

“The curriculum centers around being safe in the community,” she explains. “It’s basically trying to support people to be less vulnerable to abuse and neglect, but also focusing on how people can get more involved in their communities, how they can express their rights better.”

Peer mentoring is a tool that has seen success in the mental health field in recent years, so Felty is excited about expanding this avenue of support to include people with developmental disabilities.

“It’s so interesting how I could say the same thing, and Ashley can say it, and people just get it much better because they know that she understands what it’s like and she shares the same experiences that they do,” she says. “It’s been a great tool to help people understand some pretty difficult information sometimes.”

Ashley Mathy is currently one of just a handful of Living Well peer mentors in Wisconsin.

But the state’s Board of People with Developmental Disabilities is trying to replicate her role, so that more people can do similar work.

Mathy is on board.

“I just love this, and I think that we need more peer mentors around the state,” she says.

For her, the program is a way to help people find success while building a more inclusive community.

“We just want understanding, we just want friendships, we want relationships, we want things like everybody else does,” she says. “We want them to understand that just because we have a barrier, doesn’t mean we don’t have all these other abilities.”

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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