Saturday, March 14, 2009

DisAbility Rights Movement Leads to Youth Empowerment

Reflecting on the good work that is going on in schools all around us, I wanted to take an opportunity to highlight an innovative and highly successful work shop that was developed and delivered on Disability Awareness in Florida as part of the High School/High Tech (HS/HT)curriculum in February. The workshop was designed specifically for students with disAbilities and focused on the productive and meaningful lives that have been led by those with significant disAbilities.

This workshop was well attended and each of the students became fully and openly engaged. Utilizing resources from the Able Trust, the instructor created a two page timeline for the students. The timeline began in the 18th century and ended with the passage of the 2008 bill that will lead to the teaching of the disability rights movement to Florida students.

The workshop began with a discussion of previous rights movements in the United States. Many of the students could identify with the African Americans Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement, but none of the students had heard of the Disability Rights Movement. Many expressed surprise when they discovered that events connected with the Disability Rights Movement began only a few decades ago.

While reviewing the time line, the group discussed eugenics, ugly laws, ADA , and improvements in telecommunications. A lively discussion ensued as everyone shared their opinions on the information. Asthe students discussed their thoughts, the instructor, handed out pictures of famous individuals, including celebrities, artists, scientists, and politicians who had lived and prospered with a disability. The students were encouraged to identify the person in the picture and to identify what the individual was known for and to learn about his/her disAbility.

As they worked with the pictures, exclamations of surprise were heard around the room. The students were clearly impressed as they learned about the person in each picture and how each had lived amazing lives with their disAbilities.

As a consequence of these revelations, many of the students began to disclose their own disAbilities. For example, one HS/HT student disclosed her specific learning disAbility in reading after she learned that Marilyn Monroe stuttered.

Another HS/HT student revealed his own learning disability after he identified and learned about the lives of Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein. After, learning about Troy Aikman's club foot another HS/HT student (an avid football player), was empowered to begin speaking about his own disAbility.

The most powerful moment of the workshop came about when the students learned that actor Dan Aykroyd had Asperger’s Syndrome. Unknown to most of the HS/HT students at that time, one of the students also has Asperger’s Syndrome. Throughout the activity, she had grown more and more excited as she discovered many creative individuals such as Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh had learning disabilities with possible autism.

After hearing that Dan Aykroyd also had Asperger’s Syndrome, she shared her Asperger’s and spent nearly five minutes describing it to her peers and answering their questions. She revealed that for the first time, she was not ashamed of having Asperger’s Syndrome and was proud to be in the same category as Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh.

The workshop ended shortly after she spoke about her disAbility but many connections and conversations continue. Several days later, the students were still discussing the time line. The students continue to ask questions and it is clear that the workshop has brought these students closer to one another. Rather than breaking off into small little groups, all continue to cluster together, talking and laughing in a manner that had not been witnessed before. They have become empowered and know that they too can overcome their challenges and can claim their strengths and talents.

What actions can we take today to empower our students with disAbilities? If you wish to learn more about the High School/High Tech curriculum in Florida or to get the time line and stories of successful individuals with disAbilities, please contact Donna Mundy, Florida HS/HT Director, at

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