Gov. Charlie Baker has appointed a Bedford resident to the Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council.
Gyasi Burks-Abbott said that in his new role, he expects “I will be giving back as I am gaining more.”
In the official announcement, Burks-Abbott is described as “a writer, speaker, and autism self-advocate who has shared his experiences living with autism at various conferences, both domestically and abroad.”
He also serves as one of the original members of Bedford’s reconstituted Disabilities Commission and a former member of the Cultural Council.
The MDDC is an independent federal-funded body that works with state agencies to support people with developmental disabilities and their families. The membership includes “citizen members like me, and at least 60 percent of them must have a developmental disability.”
Other members include representatives of state agencies like the Department of Public Health, Rehabilitation Commission, and attorney general’s office. The first meeting was supposed to have taken place earlier this month but was postponed, Burks-Abbott said.
According to the council, its mission is “to help people with developmental disabilities have opportunities to led successful lives in their communities by supporting inclusive education, greater employment opportunities, and the right to make choices about where, with whom, and how they live.”
“I was sort of recruited because last year I was a Barbara Lewinsky Gopen Fellow and someone I worked with suggested I become a member,” Burks-Abbott said. The council sponsors fellowships, including part-time work and learning opportunities, for people with developmental disabilities. Burks-Abbott implemented an independent project, creating a website, autismadulthood.net.
Burks-Abbott, who was born in California, said he was diagnosed on what is now called the autism spectrum just before his 18th birthday in 1991. Before that, he said, he was considered learning disabled, assigned to special education classes. He majored in English and psychology at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.
Autism was discovered in the 1940s “by two different people in two different continents,” Burks-Abbott noted. “In 1991 people began talking about the autism spectrum.”
He has been active as an advocate for many years. “I knew about the council 15 years ago when I applied for funds so I could go to disability conferences around the country,” Burks-Abbott said.
“Some of the people I knew in different autism programs told me about the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Disabilities (LEND) program at Boston Children’s Hospital,” he continued. Burks-Abbott was a LEND fellow in 2018-2019, advocating for the successful reauthorization of the Autism CARES Act.
“I’ve benefited from this council in different ways,” Burks-Abbott related. “I got a chance to testify at my first hearing in October 2019 to a workability hearing of the Joint Committee on Families with Children and Persons with Disabilities. It was an opportunity to learn more about legislation.”
Burks-Abbott was especially close to his mother, Dr. Ruth Elizabeth Burks, a noted scholar, and film expert, who taught at colleges coast to coast, including Tufts and Bentley Universities. She died in 2017 at age 68.
They moved to Massachusetts in 1997 when she accepted a Harvard fellowship and resided in Cambridge until coming to Bedford in 2008. Burks-Abbott soon joined the Cultural Council. He said he likes to get involved because “it gives me a community, a sense of purpose. It makes me feel like I am contributing something.”
“Toward the end of her life she was focused on disability studies,” Burks-Abbott related, speaking of his mother. “We started presenting around the country together. We had a partnership – she wanted to do a more extended portrait with me. I had been working on an autobiography.”
“One of her concerns was what kind of life would I have when she was no longer around to take care of me. And that became very real after she was diagnosed with lung cancer,” he reflected. “There is a life after mom – and Bedford has been very supportive and actually helped me survive and find my own way.”
“I find myself thinking about her and at times thinking like her – she is still guiding me in a way.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763