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Developmental Disabilities Major Nelida Velez: A 2010 Women's Forum Fellow

January 7, 2011


Nelida Velez

This is the last in a series of profiles of three Lehman students—out of seven recipients—who won this year Women's Forum awards: art major Regina Farrell, nursing major Rhoda Smith, and developmental disabilities major Nelida Velez. The Women's Forum provides these annual awards to encourage mature women of need to fulfill their potential through the pursuit of an undergraduate college education and to enhance their capacities to provide productive and supportive service to their communities. According to the organization, its award recognizes "extraordinary and often heroic effort in overcoming adversity and the most daunting of odds in restructuring lives for success." Each award carries a $10,000 scholarship.

Nelida (Nellie) Velez is a fighter. The South Bronx native and Lehman student has been fighting for the rights of the disabled for almost four decades. Her life as an advocate began with the birth of her son, Jason, in 1975. The doctors told Velez that Jason wouldn't live past the age of three because of his severe developmental disabilities.

He lived until he was 24 years old.

And every step of the way, Velez says, she had to fight New York City's bureaucracy to get the Special Services her son needed—and was entitled to receive. "The City doesn't help," she says. "They want to discourage you by throwing obstacles in your way and playing games. So I had to learn to play their game, and I did. And I won."

Her youngest son, Emilio, was born in 1983 with a learning disability. By this time, she had learned the ins and outs of the City's bureaucratic maze and knew how to get the services her children needed, not that this made the task any easier. "I always had to fight for my sons," she says.

Her battles with the City were complicated by the fact that she decided to send her children to parochial school here in the Bronx. "As soon as the City found out my kids went to parochial school, they said, ‘They're not our responsibility.' Can you believe that?" she asks.

Over the years, she has worked with several organizations as an advocate for children with disabilities, including several years as a parent advocate at the John F. Kennedy, Jr. Institute at CUNY. Emilio is now 26 and holds a B.A. in computer science. "I have never given up," she says, "and I never stopped fighting for my son, because if we did he would have lost."

Now that her son was a college graduate, Velez realized it was time to do something for herself. She decided to enroll at Lehman and create her own course of study, a developmental disabilities major, to better enable her to pursue her life's work. When she graduates, she wants to continue working as a parent advocate. "Now I fight for families and other people's children," she says.

As tough as that is, going back to school also proved to be a huge challenge. "I'm a student now, and while it's a challenge at any age, it is definitely harder especially at my age," says the 62-year-old.

As a Women's Forum Fellow, she'll be able to achieve her dream of earning a B.A. "I want to continue to help families advocate for their children's special needs," she says, "and be able to help them help their children have a better life."