An Open Letter to the Parenthood Team

Dear Jason Katims, Max Burkholder, and the entire team of Parenthood,

Kids Included Together has a vision of a world where children with disabilities are welcomed, valued and supported in their communities. We began as a small, grassroots effort in San Diego in 1997 and have grown to a reach that covers 45 states and 10 countries. We teach a model of inclusion that changes attitudes towards disability, a model in which our learners come to view disability as a natural part of life. Changing attitudes and societal norms is a big challenge. Daily, we run up against people’s fear, lack of information, and deep stereotypes that limit participation of people with disabilities in our society. It’s tough but important work. It is work that our board of directors, our staff, and our national network of participants are deeply committed to. And to you we want to say, “Thank you.”

Over the past five years you have made our jobs a little easier. By choosing to include a child with an autism spectrum disorder in the network television show Parenthood, and making it part of the storyline every season, you have not only raised awareness of autism, but also helped people understand that kids are more alike than they are different. You have shown that parents, regardless of their children’s abilities or disabilities, have the same goals for their children: to be happy, to be accepted for who they are, and to love and be loved.

You haven’t shied away from depicting some very difficult moments in the life of a young person with a disability diagnosis. You have done it in a way that creates understanding, without engendering a feeling of pity in the audience. I’m sure many parents watching felt their own hearts break in Season 5 when Max was bullied on a school field trip. Most parents can relate to the conversation in the car ride home as Max asks Adam and Kristina, “Why do all the other kids hate me?”

As the series finale airs this week, we at Kids Included Together wanted you to know that your work has made a difference. You portrayed a family where diversity and inclusion is a central theme. You did it in a way that is respectful of differences, while honest about the joys and challenges. By showing it on television to millions of people each week, you have made our mission easier to achieve, and for that we are grateful.

Sincerely,

Torrie Dunlap

Chief Executive Officer, Kids Included Together

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 Transformative Power of a Compliment

cadence photo

UNC Cadence, my acs-family, before my senior concert.

When I was in college, I sang in an a cappella group. Every semester, we went on a weekend retreat where we sang for hours on end. During our retreats, we also had the opportunity to bond as a group. One of the activities we did during each retreat was write “affirmations” to each other. We would sit in a circle and pass around papers with each member’s name on them—one paper for each member. On each paper, we would write something nice about that person. Once my paper had been passed around to everyone and made its way back to me, I couldn’t help but smile as I read the little notes. I tingled with the warmth of knowing that all of these people admired me, cared about me, and respected me. It seemed like a silly exercise, but those affirmation papers are some of my most treasured possessions to this day.

A few weeks ago, I decided to take some time out of class to have students write affirmations to each other. It would be a special opportunity to really guide the kids to see that classmates are teammates that want to see each other succeed. I did have one modification, though—students did not need to write each other notes. If they wanted to draw, that was okay, too. The only requirement was that they had to communicate to their classmates at least one thing they liked about them.

The activity was a hit! My students were so thoughtful with what they wrote to each other. They were running all over the room to find their favorite colored markers to write their notes in. They were so excited to spread kindness to their classmates. One of my kiddos even asked, “Can we do this every week?” The camaraderie I’ve seen between the kids since then has been inspiring. They build each other up, they cheer each other on, and when any student is upset about something, they rally around him or her to bring a smile to his or her face. It’s amazing to think that setting aside just a few minutes to share compliments built such a strong fellowship in our class!

–Written by Elise Hopkins

Have you ever done any team-building activities that caused a remarkable shift in your group’s dynamic? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

Congratulations to January’s Advo-KIT of the Month!

We are thrilled to introduce you all to this month’s Advo-KIT– Diane Nutting. Diane is the Director of Access and Inclusion at Imagination Stage, not to mention inclusion advocate extraordinaire. Continue reading for our interview with Diane.

When were you first introduced to inclusion? Why did you choose to become a champion for inclusion?

diannenuttingheadshotI have intersected with the fields of disability and a D/deafness throughout by whole professional life. I have always been passionate about the power of the arts to provide multiple entry points and create a level playing field where all participants can have an equal voice and contribution (regardless of background, language, ability, etc.). However, my true journey of inclusion began with my introduction to KIT and its programs several years ago. Having the language and strategies to articulate and put one of my core beliefs into practice was and is invaluable. My journey with inclusion continues every day as I learn and experience new things. This journey has allowed me to push beyond my previous “limits” of what I perceived to be possible in this work.

What do you love about inclusion?

I love that it’s about community. I love that every time inclusion is happening, it is creating an ensemble of sorts among all those participating in that moment. I’ve always been REALLY big on the ensemble ethic. My mantra as a teacher and director with young people has always been that everyone in the room is there for a reason and is bringing a unique gift to the process. The basic philosophies of inclusion align so well with my mantra. Since inclusion is so much about belonging, I believe that ensemble-based art forms are organic places for this to happen. But beyond that, I love what the entire community gains from an inclusive setting (those with and without disabilities). So much of the strife in our world I believe is because people don’t understand the perspectives of others (not that you have to agree, but you do need to understand). Inclusion provides young people–and adults as well–with the foundational building blocks for that way of thinking. I like to think that it’s a catalyst for larger change.

What is your vision for an inclusive world?

An inclusive world is a world where everyone takes ownership and responsibility for making sure that everyone has a voice and is accepted. A place where folks can be who they are and people accept differences as diversity rather than deficiency or “right” vs. “wrong.”

Did you overcome a barrier or roadblock regarding exclusion/inclusion?

I think my biggest roadblocks are always wondering or worrying about how others will respond to a situation and where they are in their own inclusion journey. This can come from typically developing children and their families/caregivers, but it can also come from the families of the children we are working to include. For example, sometimes families feel vulnerable or unsafe or don’t trust that we really want to include their child. And of course every teacher you meet is on their own journey. I think the biggest obstacles to overcome are making sure that everyone understands not only the “what” but also the “why” of inclusion, and then empowering them to work together to figure out “how.”

What is one of your most memorable inclusion experiences?

Just one?!? Oh, I’m so blessed to have witnessed several amazing inclusion experiences. I think some of the most exciting ones are the ones that are the scariest or most unknown. The ones where we think “How is THIS going to happen?” We have a student who has participated in camps and classes for years. They have limited mobility and their communication is non-verbal (progressing as technology has progressed over the years). The first time they joined us, I remember some very frantic calls to the KIT staff because we wanted to be sure we got it right. We’ve taken on some pretty big challenges with this student–Improvisation, Shakespeare, Acting for the Camera, etc. But last summer, I watched as the student was fully integrated into a week long musical theatre boot camp that culminated in a final performance of songs, scenes, and movements. Watching this student be fully integrated into the production (through the creativity and passion of both the teaching and support staff, and the students themselves), was truly a treat.

What is your top tip that you would give to someone working with children?

Create an environment with a community focus and ethic–one where everyone cares about each other. Foster a community where kids understand that you will love and accept them and keep them safe no matter what, and then provide opportunities for them to do that for each other.

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.

Retail Heresy

KIT-6770-amanda editThank you so much to Amanda Couture, a KIT staff member, for writing this week’s post. This week, Amanda tells a story about a time inclusion was on her mind even when she was off the clock.

I have worked at KIT for the past five years, and with the exception of this job, I have no real personal connection to the disability community. I started working here because I wanted to get into the nonprofit sector and I liked KIT’s message and mission. While I was a kid that enjoyed learning the ASL alphabet to sign with my friends who were deaf or hard-of-hearing, I did not have anyone in my life that deeply drew me to the heart of inclusion.

I preface this post with my background only to demonstrate how I never really saw myself as an advocate for people with disabilities. It was not my fight.

Working at KIT has changed me for the better, including the way it has heightened my awareness of accessibility in public places. When I enter a building, I notice if someone would have to go out of their way to access the wheelchair ramp. When I read a menu, I am aware of the font and whether is too small for some patrons to read. This sensitivity to others’ needs is something that I am grateful to have learned and practiced (and to have had wonderful guides gently showing me the way).

Not too long ago I got to do something for my birthday that married working moms rarely are able to do: take “me time”. It had probably been two years or so since I had last gone shopping by myself to buy things for me – it truly was retail therapy. Yet even when I was in this blissful state, I found my “job” following me…

With a gift card in hand, I walked into a well-known store where I had never personally shopped before. As soon as I stepped into the doors, the smell of their fragrance collection smacked me in the face and laid siege upon my nostrils. I thought that it would dissipate as I continued into the store, but it never relented. The entire time I was trying not to take normal, deeper breaths so I could avoid getting a headache. I found myself wondering two things: 1) How can people work here every day? and, 2) What about people with sensitivity/allergies to fragrance? Do they just not shop here?

I made my way to the back of the store to rifle through their sale section (which had barely visible signage, I might add). As I started going through the items, I realized how high I had to reach to get to one of the shelves – and there were two more shelves even above that one! Now I am 5’8” and was wearing 2-3 inch heels, so I should have had no problem reaching that top shelf – let alone the two shelves below it. My first thought was, “Interesting marketing tactic – put the sale items up high so that people can’t reach them and will be more likely to buy the full-price items that are easily accessible on the racks below”. My second thought was, “What about people who use wheelchairs? There is no way they would have been able to reach the majority of the sale shelves and racks.” And of course there was no store employee around to offer assistance – they were too busy organizing the full-price clothes in the front of the store.

It is one thing to know your target audience and market your product around that “ideal shopper.” But to have your product displayed in an environment that impedes, and sometimes excludes, people from buying your product is irresponsible (not to mention bad for your own sales!).

While it may not seem like a big deal that there are some stores certain people can’t shop at, or places they can’t eat, or museums they can’t tour, it is a big deal. People should never be excluded from enjoying everyday activities simply because others aren’t thinking about how to accommodate them. It should matter to us that people are marginalized everyday over things that they have no control over. It should be our fight.

–Written by Amanda Couture, edited by KIT staff

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.

Inclusion as a Stage

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with another blogger who told me about her son’s experience with inclusion in school. Something she said has stuck with me ever since. She told me that inclusion wasn’t working for her son because their district had a “sink or swim” mentality when it came to inclusion. She didn’t have to say it; I could tell she meant that their district had pushed her son to sink. Their school district had given up on her son. It sounded like the school had been trying to prove that her child could not achieve, instead of celebrating his successes. “Sink or swim” mentality doesn’t work for me. I like to see my classroom as a stage, and my goal is to get every child in the spotlight as often as possible. Every child can succeed, can enjoy their moment in the spotlight. We just need to tailor our definition of success to each individual child.

My students are working at significantly different levels of achievement (especially in math, which is the subject I primarily teach). It can sometimes be discouraging to see some students struggling so much to understand a concept that others have mastered. I just have to remind myself that as long as my students know how much they have grown, and as long as I continue to celebrate that growth, we all succeed.

One thing I’ve made a point to do is eliminate any kind of competitive atmosphere in my class. In math, we do timed math drills daily. My students complete different drills– one student is learning his 7’s multiplication facts; another is still working to master 0-3; still another is working to memorize one-digit addition facts. And that’s okay! Any of my students could also tell you that their goal each day is to grow from their personal score from the previous day, not to compare their score to anyone else’s! When a student demonstrates significant improvement or “graduates” to the next level of drills, we take a moment as a class to give “snaps” to show them that we are proud of their progress. Before teaching, I never could have even imagined the grins on my students’ faces when their classmates congratulate them. It’s their moment in the spotlight to celebrate what they have learned.

It is not always easy to remind myself (and my students) that progress is the goal, but when I do, it is certainly rewarding. One of my students who struggles the most in math told me the other day, “This used to be really confusing to me, and now I’m starting to understand it. It’s actually kind of fun now! I know I’m making progress, and I’m really proud of myself.” My heart swelled–moments like that remind me what a big impact we can have every day on these children’s lives. As Maya Angelou famously said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Please join me in making the choice to celebrate your student/camper/son/daughter’s growth this year; I promise they will not forget the moment when you made them feel proud of their own progress. Happy New Year!

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.