Photographed by Hillary Schave
Growing up in Walworth County, labeled with Asperger’s syndrome, attention deficit disorder and cerebral palsy, Nicki Vander Meulen was a disability advocate by age 7, fighting for her right to attend the local public school. Though successful, her road through the education system had continuous obstacles. The student teacher who ordered the other students to laugh at her for rocking, a common self-calming method for autistic individuals. The police escort she needed in middle school. Even in law school at UW-Madison, classmates filed complaints about her using a note taker and questioned how she got in.
“I was advocating for myself whether I liked it or not,” says Vander Meulen, appreciative of her incredibly supportive parents who had the means to afford support services, privileges many children with disabilities don’t have.
When she applied at 300 law firms, disclosing her disabilities, no one would hire her. Setting out on her own, she had the freedom to take cases that matter most to her—the juvenile mental health overflow, work she loves because it allows her to advocate for kids and adults with different needs.
The 2016 presidential election pushed her to run for the Madison Metropolitan School District board, in an effort to change the system in which she sees countless children become clients, getting expelled and possibly facing criminal charges.
“We should work on an intervention before we work on punishment,” says Vander Meulen. “This is how [kids are] telling us there’s a problem with the system. I don’t want to punish them. I want to keep them in school.”
Within the next five years, Vander Meulen wants to establish a nonprofit for girls with Asperger’s, to provide resources and support to this oft-overlooked demographic. She’ll run again for school board. And she hasn’t necessarily ruled out running for another political office someday. “I just want to make it so that individuals with disabilities are seen as equal. Not just equal but equitable.”