The Legacy of ADA

Twenty-five years ago yesterday, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA changed the everyday experiences for people with disabilities. June 26, 1990 was an incredible milestone for the disability community. The purpose of ADA is to prohibit discrimination based on disability and provide similar protections to those provided in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Beginning this past weekend, celebrations took place (and continue to take place) all over the country to celebrate the anniversary of the signing of ADA. For example, New York City hosted ADA25NYC, a series of events to honor the legacy of ADA, including a series of lectures and seminars at various CUNY campuses, a museum exhibition outlining the disability rights movement, and an awards ceremony to acknowledge the efforts of various disability rights advocates. In Cincinnati, a Disability Pride Walk took place earlier today. In my own city, Chicago,  ADA25Chicago sponsored a Disability Pride Parade, as well as various projects to educate Chicagoans on disability issues, including a partnership with teenagers in After School Matters. All year, the ADA Legacy Bus has been touring the country as part of the ADA Legacy Project. This year’s theme was “Disability Rights Are Civil Rights.”

Along with celebrating the many improvements to life for Americans with disabilities since ADA, many have taken this time to reflect on the obstacles that still exist, and what we can do to continue to overcome them. According to Disability Scoop, President Obama said last Monday, “Now, days like today are a celebration of our history. But they’re also a chance to rededicate ourselves to the future– to address the injustices that still linger, to remove the barriers that remain.” These include the barriers to inclusion we see daily, when children with disabilities are excluded because people are afraid of the challenge of supporting them. We see lawsuits occur when children, like Steven Heffron from Ohio, are excluded from summer camps or other recreational programs. Our hearts ache for parents when teachers say, “What is the benefit to including your child in general education classes?”, as Michelle from Big Blueberry Eyes experienced this year. We have come so far since 1990, but we still have a long way to go.

Though individuals with disabilities and their families now have legal rights against discrimination, there are still too many Americans who have not yet changed their mindsets. The problem is that, to so many people, inclusion is seen as a civil right of those with disabilities, as “the nice thing to do,” as opposed to something that can benefit all people involved. When I think back on my involvement with inclusive programs growing up, I don’t think that I was doing a favor to my peers with disabilities. I myself benefited immensely from their presence and friendship. I discovered the value of diversity, and of listening to others’ stories and experiences. I learned how to maximize my creativity and how to lead by valuing the contributions of all group members. We must embrace the value of inclusion for all people, as opposed to including kids with disabilities because the law requires it or because of a charitable effort. In doing so, we will honor the people who fought so hard for access and respect for all. At that point, we will be living out the true legacy of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

–Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT Blog Writer

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

Why (and Where) Kids with Disabilities Should Do Chores

A couple of months ago, I read a few posts on Big Blueberry Eyes, Love That Max, and BLOOM about kids with disabilities being required to do chores at school. It all began when Michelle, author of Big Blueberry Eyes, went to observe the class her daughter will be joining next year as she transitions to middle school. As part of independent living skills training, this special education class was asked to wash the football team’s uniforms. Michelle was outraged, and I don’t blame her. Here’s why.

School is where kids go to learn reading, writing, math, science, social studies… Academic content. There are vocational schools out there, but this was not one of those schools. Deciding that these middle schoolers were going to spend less time on academic content, and more time completing chores to “serve” their classmates and school, is wrong. It sends a message that these students are not worthy, not capable, of learning to read and write. Furthermore, it communicates to their peers, particularly these football players, that their classmates with disabilities are beneath them, almost like their servants.

I noticed some comments on Michelle’s post, telling her that they think it’s great that kids were being taught how to do laundry, that this activity would help them to be more independent as adults. I agree that teenagers, with and without disabilities, should be learning these skills, but they should be happening at home.

Last Spring, I had the honor of meeting Tim Harris of Tim’s Place, a restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tim is a man with Down Syndrome who owns and manages his own restaurant (Tim’s Place). Tim was the keynote speaker at National Inclusion Project’s 2014 Power of Play conference. I will never forget what Tim said in his keynote address. He was reminiscing about growing up with siblings who were typically-developing and told us about all the times his parents and siblings told him he had no excuse not to do his chores. His family believed in him; they knew he was capable of taking responsibility and being a fully-contributing member of their household.

In order to encourage independence, all kids should be exposed to responsibility around the house. Start with something small– maybe sweeping, dusting, setting the dinner table, or loading the dishwasher. Instill in your kids a pride in their accomplishments. Let them know how much their help is appreciated. Kids of all abilities should absolutely be doing chores, because chores teach responsibility and independence.

The message is clear: have high expectations. Believe in your child (or student) with disabilities. Parents, set them up for success with chores that will help them be independent. This will prepare them for a fulfilling adulthood. Teachers, provide parents with support and resources to help them teach these skills at home. At school, tie academics in with independent functioning. Practice money skills, learn how to design a budget, practice writing job applications or personal statements, and read the newspaper. These are all valuable skills for developing independent thinkers and citizens!

–Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT Blog Writer

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

When Our School District Said No Inclusion, We Moved.

 He refused clothes, except a pair of striped socks, and was non-verbal at 3 years old, when we first entered the school system.  Barking, like our family dog, was his form of communication, as he hid under the nearest table.  Needless to say, our school district intake meeting did not go well.  My son refused to participate in their tests, but he did play with a few of their toys.  Armed with our brand new autism diagnosis from a developmental pediatrician, I demanded they help us.  An exhausted supervisor, with frazzled hair and far too many wrinkles for her age, shrugged and said, “I’ve got 43 other kids ahead of him.”

We lived right next to an adorable elementary school, and I couldn’t wait for my son to attend, but that was only one of my dreams shattered by our school district.  We were informed that my son was not going to that school because of his special needs.  We’d have to drive him to a school across the city that was barren, had no parking, and a class for kids like him, meaning mild-to-severely autistic.  I tried to stay open minded, but when I toured the school, I cried.  Every cell in my body knew this was not the best learning environment for my son.  And so we paid out-of-pocket for a private school that had early intervention.  We didn’t have the money, but we scraped by.

Jackie's son learning to skate

Jackie’s son learning to skate

My son excelled in the program for the next two years, and though his anxiety was still off the charts, he had started talking and could tolerate sitting across the table from the other kids, as long as he had his own space.  Before our kindergarten IEP, he knew his numbers, letters, and could read.  Surely, he would be going to the adorable school two blocks from our home, but no, our school district denied him that right again, banishing him to a segregated section of a dilapidated building yet again.

I thought about my own school experience as a child.  The only child with special needs I knew was a boy in my 5th grade class.  Sam.  He insisted on wearing his jacket every day in the Arizona heat, sometimes reaching 120 degrees, and he would bite his own arm and shout out the answers as the teacher taught her lessons.  He didn’t stay in our class for long, but left a lifelong impression.  Mostly, I was curious about Sam and wanted to know more about him.  Then in high school, I signed up to be a part of a buddy program, eating lunch once a week with a student with special needs.  On my first day, I was ushered into a classroom off the side of the administration offices, and had lunch with a lovely girl with Down syndrome.  I hadn’t known this classroom even existed.  And where were these students during assemblies?  It was as if they went to an entirely different school.  I refused to let this be my son’s path.

I found a beautiful school about an hour away from our current apartment.  I’d like to say I researched online, or it was recommended to me, but it was more cosmic.  I was driving in search of a different school; I had made a wrong turn, and there it was.  A massive park and playground surrounded this beautiful elementary school, nestled into a quaint neighborhood. I felt like I had arrived in Mayberry as I walked in and found a helpful staff member who gave me a map of their school district.  I just had to move into a place within those lines, and my son could attend this school.

We found a rental home, added an hour to my husband’s commute, and registered my son into the district a week before kindergarten started.  They were fearful that they couldn’t meet his needs set by his current IEP, as they didn’t have an exclusive special needs classroom, but we all agreed to give it a go and then make changes if needed.  My son started a typical kindergarten class with an aide, and we held our breath to see what would happen.

He blossomed.  Although we had some speed bumps, we worked through them.  He no longer needed an aide by second grade, and is currently in 7th grade.  Besides PE, he loves school, is quite social, and has an excellent GPA, and yes, he still has autism.

If we would have entered him into that mild-to-severe classroom, my son would be flapping his arms and rocking, which were his stimming preferences pre-kindergarten.  He stopped those behaviors without anyone asking and instead modeled the students in his classroom.  We would have never found his true potential.  We would have never known what he was capable of because the expectations were set so low.  We would have never unlocked the child inside that needed help to learn and to become the person he is today.

Jackie's son on his first day of fifth grade

Jackie’s son on his first day of fifth grade

It could have gone the other way as well.  He could have been moved out of his typical kindergarten and into a class specifically for kids with special needs, and that would have been okay, too.  For me, it was about setting him up for success.  We had to try.  And if didn’t work, we would have tried the next best thing, but never settling for a class, segregated from the world, as if he was thrown away from society.  Inclusion matters.  All people matter.  And we will never know what a child has to offer the world if they are not given the opportunity to be included.

–Written by Jackie Linder Olson, author of of Peace, Autism, and Love; Edited by KIT staff

Jackie Linder Olson is the co-author of the book series Sensory Parenting, and author of The Waiting Pool.  Jackie’s currently blogging at Peace, Autism, and Love, where she’s formed a community for other parents with young children and teenagers on the autism spectrum, sensory processing issues, and on mindful parenting.  Prior to Sensory Parenting, she created an award-winning series of instructional occupational therapy and sensory integration DVDs with Britt Collins, OTR/L  for parents, teachers and caregivers of special needs children.  You may contact her at PeaceAutismandLove@gmail.com

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

 

The Case Against Competition

Growing up, I was very active in the performing arts– dance classes, choir, the school play, you name it! However, I always felt a sense of anxiety as the season began because the start to the season meant that auditions were coming. At auditions, I would be judged by my leaders and compared to my peers. I began to dread the feeling of inadequacy, the feeling that all of my flaws were going to be noted on my teachers’ clipboards. Everyone would be pointing out that even though I could remember steps to a dance and perform it with enthusiasm, I wasn’t as flexible or controlled as Kate; even though my voice could hit impressively high notes, my belt wasn’t as powerful as Allie’s.

At such a young age, I should not have had to worry about my peers being “better” than me. I began hoping for my friends to mess up the words to their songs, or wishing that they would try out for a part different from the one I wanted, so I didn’t have to worry about their competition. I would practice hour upon hour, but instead of thinking about doing my personal best, I just wanted it to be better than everyone else. It didn’t matter how good I was, as long as I was better than my peers. Despite the fact that I loved to perform and was passionate about being on the stage, I stopped caring about perfecting my own craft. I was less invested in being the best “me” and more invested in just being better than everyone else.

Then, I found Unified Theater. Unified Theater was an inclusive theater program that allowed me to perform without competition. I got to be any part I wanted to play, because my peers and I wrote our own productions. I could write myself into a skit in the exact part I wanted to play. One year, my friend and I were in a skit group together. Our skit was about a birthday party. We both wanted to be the birthday girl, so we decided to rewrite the plot with two birthday girls– twins! Before long, I loved being on stage again. I no longer had the intense anxiety and stage fright that I had begun to develop from all of the judgment. I just wanted to be the best me that I could be, and I had such a blast cheering on my friends to do the same.

We are all our best versions of ourselves when we build each other up and encourage all of our friends to be the best they can be. During the crazy months of audition time, I rarely cheered on my friends. I was scared that if they performed their best, then I wouldn’t be good enough for the part I wanted to get. Instead of just enjoying my time on the stage, I was always nervous that someone was noticing every mistake I made, every piece of me that was not good enough. I hope that someday, everyone has the opportunity to participate in a program like Unified Theater. I have no doubt that my experience at Unified Theater has shaped me into the leader and citizen I am today– someone who wants to see others thrive, who pushes everyone she knows to be their best selves, and who genuinely measures her own growth against her past self, instead of the people around her. Thank you, Unified Theater. Thank you, inclusion.

https://unsportywomencanrun.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/the-sporty-athletic-unsporty-woman/

–Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT Blog Editor

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.

What It’s REALLY Like to Teach Middle School

When I tell people I work as a teacher, the conversation inevitably goes like this:
“Oh, that’s wonderful! What do you teach?”
“7th grade sp–“
“You teach middle school?! That is rough. I hated middle school. I cringe when I think back to my time in middle school. It takes a special kind of person to deal with kids that age. You are a saint!”

 There are so many stereotypes I have heard of middle schoolers– that they are self-involved, disrespectful, and unkind to adults and classmates. I have to admit that I don’t like to object when people are telling me what a wonderful person I am, but in all honesty, I do not feel like a saint at all. My students have overturned all of the stereotypes I have heard and previously believed about middle schoolers. I am not a special kind of person to deal with them– they are a special kind of people themselves, who are often misunderstood and need to be treated in a unique way. Last week was my first last day of school as a teacher. As I have been reflecting on my first year teaching, I wrote my students a letter about what this year was really like.

Dear students,

Teenagers are most known for acting in ways that may seem selfish and self-centered. I came into this year fully prepared for one hundred and five students who only cared about themselves and how popular they were. I want you to know that you have proved me wrong.

Sarah, when you came and spoke to me to express worries about your friend who was going through a hard time, I know that you took a risk to do so. You put her safety before your desire to be on good terms with your friend. You acknowledged that she might be angry with you for speaking to a teacher about it, but you did it anyway. You knew that I could help connect her with the support she needed. You were worried that I might think you were being overly dramatic, but the reason why you acted so passionately is because you care so deeply. Many adults have lost that passion. You are a hero.

Ruby, when you volunteered to help your classmate who has difficulty following along, you have no clue how much you really supported him. What you do not know is that he has a moderate hearing impairment, and having someone to help him fill in his notes when he misses some details was invaluable to his growth this year. He is also very shy, and I’m not sure he would have had any friends in class if you hadn’t gone out of your way to include him in your group projects. You made sure he knew he is a valued member of our community, and for that, you are a true leader.

Joseph, when you helped your friend with her math homework before school, you have no idea how much you warmed my heart. She came into class showing a much greater understanding of the work than she had in class the day before. I asked her who had helped her with her homework, and she said it was you. You must have known that her work was perhaps at a simpler level than the math homework you had done the previous night. Instead of pointing that out to her and making fun of her, you helped her and boosted her confidence. You have a kind and nurturing heart, and you are the picture of empathy.

Finally, Caleb, I know that you are the “cool kid” in school. You moved here and joined our class halfway through the year. Immediately, you had plenty of friends who wanted to sit with you at lunch and play football with you after school. Despite the countless offers from perhaps more “popular” kids in our grade, you chose to help out other seventh graders who needed a friend. You came before school every single morning to support your classmate who needed extra help and worked with him as a study buddy. In your end-of-year project presentation, you helped your quiet and reserved classmate step up and coached him through what he needed to say; you put your arm around him and supported him through each moment. You are a true role model.

I’d like to say I’m responsible for creating this community of kind, empathetic, hard-working leaders, but I think you just needed to be given the opportunity to let your true hearts shine. You were already these amazing people, and I am so grateful that I was able to get to know each of you and learn from you this year. Thank you for creating an amazing seventh grade community. Have a wonderful summer, and let’s do it all over again next year in eighth grade!

All my love,

Ms. Hopkins

–Written by Elise Hopkins, KIT blog editor and full-time special education teacher. 

Kids Included Together (KIT) is a non-profit located in San Diego, CA and Washington, DC. We help make the world a more inclusive place by providing live and online training to people who work with kids. We teach strategies, accommodations and best practices to include kids with and without disabilities in before & after school programs. Inclusive environments create stronger communities. Learn more about our work at www.KITonline.org.