From the CEO: Lessons from Microsoft

Truth be told, I am a Steeler football fan, so this year’s Super Bowl had little draw for me. But I watched anyway because the commercials and game would be the conversation on Monday. There was one commercial that stood out.

It was an ad that featured Owen. Owen has Escobar Syndrome, an inherited disease resulting in joint contractures and impaired muscle movement. He and others with upper extremity deformities were shown enjoying the world of video games.

I love that Microsoft developed an adaptive controller ($99.99). Millions of people saw that commercial and likely thought “what an innovative and empathic company”. I admit I got tears in my eyes.

After that commercial, I did research about Microsoft. They have a Disability Answer desk! Assistive technology is so critical for those with differing abilities. There are good videos to provide additional support. I learned that gamers with disabilities helped design the new adaptive controller. They even eliminated some of the difficult packaging (twist ties, hard plastic zip ties, etc) to ensure that gamers with limited mobility could be able to easily access the device without the need for help!

But my thoughts went another way when I watched that ad. I didn’t think of Microsoft. I didn’t think of Owen. I didn’t think of the other children shown who gleefully used that adaptive controller in order to be competitive. I thought of all of their friends.

We saw all of those kids who played with Owen and the other profiled children. Either on their own or with encouragement of others, they celebrated Owen being able to competitively play with them. In the commercial, those were Owen’s real life friends- not actors.

Microsoft also supports Unified Robotic teams in partnership with Special Olympics where kids interested in STEM fields are partnered with a Special Olympic athlete for team competition. For many of those STEM students that robotic design competition may be their first opportunity to really share time with a student with special needs.

If you are a parent of a child without disabilities, are you encouraging your children to be a part of unified teams at their schools? Are your children friends with others of differing abilities? I would hope that you are talking with them about our differences and similarities.

Through that Unified Robotics program, kids get first-hand experience getting to know kids with differing abilities. One quote on Microsoft’s blog: “These other kids saw somebody who had worked so hard at something they take for granted…It impacted them so much. They learned about tenacity.”  Give your child those opportunities to meet Owen and the many other kids who want to play.

When everybody plays, we all win.

New Scholarship for Special Educators

We at AWS Foundation often talk of those we serve overcoming barriers to achievement. Our support lifts our grantees over their barriers. Those grantees help individuals with disabilities overcome their barriers. Now, we’re taking on a new barrier: having enough specialized licensed teachers in special education in Northeast Indiana. Through a fund at Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne, we now offer an annual scholarship to special educators seeking additional licenses to better serve their school districts. Let’s meet our first two scholarship recipients:

Kimberly Luke-Scherer (center) with Jenny Snyder (left, AWS Foundation) and Krista Arnold (Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne)

Kimberly Luke-Scherer

Kimberly Luke-Scherer is a Functional Life Skills teacher at East Noble High School. With 13 years of experience, she has several education licenses and a Master’s in Intense Intervention. Her dedication to inclusive practices shows in her extensive effort to co-teach in the general education setting where peers are partnered with special education students to assist with social skills, mentoring, and instruction. She has great aspirations to make an impact in the special education world and this scholarship will go to her obtaining a Special Education Director’s certificate. “As a Director, I will be able to mentor those in the Special Education field, guide decisions and programming, and above all touch the lives of a greater number of students,” Scherer says. “These students have stolen my heart and inspired me to advocate for their needs, rights, and to forge new opportunities.”

Jennifer Pose (center) with Jenny Snyder (left) and Krista Arnold

Jennifer Pose

Jennifer Pose’s passion for special education comes from her own experiences with her teachers as a low vision student. They empowered her to do things that she was often told she would never be able to do, including learning to drive. Dedicated to reaching her career goals, she overcame her fear of driving as someone who has been declared legally blind, during her undergraduate years in order to prepare for student teaching. “From the very beginning my low vision teachers encouraged me to be an advocate for myself,” says Pose. With the help of our scholarship, she is pursuing her Blind and Low Vision license to pass that encouragement on to students like her. “I have a passion for special education because I have always wanted to assist my students and their parents to feel empowered.”

New Chief Program Officer: First Thoughts

Since officially beginning my job as the new Chief Program Officer on January 2nd, the words Independence, Inclusion, and Potential have taken on new meaning. Even though I have worked for 35 years in the field of disability and always supported those words in an educational setting, my new position allows me to see how they play out in everyday life.

From my current vantage point, I am seeing every day how the word ‘community’ is what brings each of those powerful words to fruition.  As we build independence in our students, we are molding independent adults.  As we raise our expectations and help students achieve their full potential, we are increasing opportunities in the workforce. As we work to create inclusive environments in our schools, we are leading individuals and families to expect inclusive communities.

Each grantee I am able to meet, each program I am able to visit, and each community member I interact with reaffirms that we are truly heading in the right direction. If we continue to honor and respect the potential of all individuals across the lifespan, we will continue to build schools, programs, and communities inclusive of all. I am excited to be starting my adventure with AWS Foundation and NE Indiana and look forward to working with you.

Special Education Series Part 4: Parent Perspective

With a successful case conference under your belt, you probably want to know what comes next. It is important for you to follow up to ensure that your child’s IEP is followed throughout the year. This also means doing your part at home. Consistency is key for the educational success of your student. Here are some tips for staying on track and advocating for your child:

  • Keep in contact with educators involved in your child’s education. Especially their teacher of record/and or special education teacher. Your child’s teacher of record is responsible for reporting progress on IEP goals on a routine basis. Make sure to note that during the case conference and review these progress notes when you receive them. In addition, you can contact any of your child’s teachers with questions or concerns at any time. Depending on the needs of your child, you may try to establish routine communication with the teacher of record. And, without a doubt, if you feel the IEP is not being implemented, contact the teacher of record to voice your concern.
  • Keep folders. It is beneficial to keep separate folders of report cards, IEP copies, correspondence with educators, notes from case conferences, etc. Have them organized by year as well, so that you can monitor your child’s progress. This ensures that you are up to date for the next case conference and may raise points not brought up by educators.
  • Always take a look at your child’s school work. Stay up to date on what your child is learning, and monitor how well they understand the content.

Special Education Series Part 4: Educator Perspective

A foundation for a strong partnership is communication.  While I have seen many teachers work to establish lines of communication, sometimes it is easily forgotten the impact our words may have on students and parents.  It’s a very rare occasion when a teacher doesn’t have a student’s best interest in mind when communicating, but when we get too caught up in meeting compliance requirements, we can lose touch with which parts of the message are truly the most impactful to the child’s life … including life beyond school.

Any time we communicate with a parent we are either building or tearing down the relationship.  Even when something difficult must be communicated, it can be done without passing judgement and maintaining high expectations.  We have to understand the impact of our words.  In all situations, we must carefully consider whether our words might harm or heal.

The term “reality police” sometimes comes to mind when I think about teacher to parent communication.  Certainly our school accountability system can make it very challenging to stop focusing on a child’s deficits; but as educators we need to be so careful that our communication is rooted in high expectations.

From the CEO: Winter with a Disability

It is wonderful to see how vital downtown Fort Wayne has become. New retail, restaurants, murals, ice skating and other destination venues are drawing more and more into the downtown streets. Gone are the days when a drive through downtown was one of isolation. Winter is here and the challenge is to continue to draw the same crowds. We want everyone to feel as if downtown offers them a draw…but is that true?

We want everyone to enjoy the activities that their town has to offer…including the activities in the winter. Through inclusive social, recreational and arts programs, AWS Foundation and the organizations they fund seek to engage and inspire individuals with enduring disabilities all over Northeast Indiana. Through our grants we strive to provide the opportunities for volunteerism, access to the theater, music, recreation and all the great things that make our community our home. We recognize the isolation and loneliness that is too often a routine part of the life for the person with a disability.

18 blue post accessible parking meters are scattered around the downtown Fort Wayne area.  These are meters that are restricted to only those with handicapped placards or license plates to ensure convenient on street parking. However, in the months of snow the distance between the car and the sidewalk might be blocked by a virtual Mt. Everest of snow. For the person with a disability, even local travel requires additional planning and time allowance but, in the winter, a trip downtown can be insurmountable and filled with risks. The 20% of the population with disabilities may just choose not to come downtown, and being already at risk for a sense of isolation, become even lonelier.

Arts United has agreed to pilot an “adopt a meter program”. The Blue Post meter on Barr and Main is the closest meter to Art Link, Pembroke Bakery and the FW Ballet. Arts United has agreed to ensure that the space will be clear of snow so that the ramp from a wheelchair accessible van can be deployed; so that the individual with ambulation challenges doesn’t need to climb over a mound of snow or walk along the road to gain sidewalk access at a cleared intersection. They will assess for ice in and around the meter. They will be sending a clear message to ALL of the residents of the area that they are welcomed.

The Fort Wayne City and Allen County Disability Council will be working with the city to evaluate the program for possible future replication. We will be promoting the program as it hopefully expands. But it shouldn’t stop with Fort Wayne.

We all want a life that is shared. We all want a life with a social connection and less loneliness. We all want a life with a variety of experiences and trips downtown should be a part of that. Will you help with fighting the illness of loneliness that too often is a part of the winter for the person with a disability? We are encouraging businesses in all of Northeast Indiana to consider how they can be more welcoming during these winter months. If you are interested, please contact me (phays@awsfoundation.org).

Education Series Part 3: Educator Perspective

Are parents truly enabled to participate in case conferences?  As a former special education administrator, I have sat in many conferences where I watched staff conduct more of an IEP presentations opposed to leading a conversation about an IEP.

As special educators, we are many times inundated with IEP lingo and compliance; however, for our parents who many times only sit in IEP review meetings once, maybe twice a year, this language can be difficult to follow – even if they are familiar with Article 7.

One rule which we encouraged staff to follow is that the parent should contribute to the conversation within the first five minutes of the meeting.  This goes beyond a simple introduction.  Parents could be prompted to list one to three things they are happy with regarding student progress and then one to three concerns or questions they have about creating a plan for the upcoming school year.  If parents are more reluctant to participate, teachers may need to work with them ahead of time, either through the use of a pre-conference form or through a phone call.  Another idea to get all participants involved in the meeting, including parents, is to give everyone a role such as, time keeper, tracking the agenda, note taker, etc.

The more parents have the opportunity to truly participate in the conference, the more invested they will be to the success of the educational plan.  So, do we dare ask how much opportunity the student has to participate in her or her case conference?

Education Series Part 3: Parent Perspective

In the first two parts of this series, I described case conferences and what goes into an IEP. It is important for parents/caregivers to show up to the case conference fully prepared. Proper preparation helps to ensure that the student gets everything they need for a successful education.

Preparing for a case conference, especially your first, can be overwhelming. It is important to do your own research and find methods best for you. Here are some tips for preparation to get you started:

  1. Know your rights: This is a big one. Go into the meeting already aware for what your child is eligible and the steps you can take to ensure goals are met. Though it is long, it would help to read the Indiana Board of Education Special Education Rules
  2. Review the past year: This tip, of course, is only if this is not your first IEP. Reviewing the previous year’s IEP is a good idea. This will help you to evaluate if goals were adequately met, what worked and what didn’t work.
  3. Come in with your own questions, concerns & recommendations: You know your child best and should feel confident sharing your own concerns and recommendations with the school personnel. Preparing these ahead of time will keep everyone involved on the same page as you work together to achieve your child’s goals for their future.
  4. Keep Folders: It’s important to keep any information on your child’s education from year to year. Correspondence with the school, report cards, IEPs, homework/tests and behavioral reports are all good items to keep. It would also be helpful for these documents to be organized in separate folders and by each year.
  5. Bring Notes: Write out everything you want to cover in the meeting and bring it with you. This will ensure you don’t forget anything. It would be best to bring a notepad with you to take notes during the meeting, as you are not able to take the IEP home with you.

From the CEO: Disability Rights

In visiting family in Atlanta this past Thanksgiving, I took advantage of the opportunity to also visit the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Much of the museum was, as one would expect in the home city of Ebenezer Baptist Church, dedicated to the civil rights movement of the 60s and the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The story didn’t stop there, however. Significant exhibit space examined global human and civil rights. Disability was alongside gender, race and religion when speaking of discrimination; specifically the story of Bob Kafka.

At 27 years old, Kafka broke his neck and gained firsthand knowledge of transportation as a barrier to work for those whose lives are in wheelchairs. He helped found ADAPT to counter his experience that most thought of disability as a medical issue rather than one of civil rights. Too often he found that people whose disabilities couldn’t be “fixed” were placed in nursing homes. He fought for change. He was profiled in this museum because of his nonviolent advocacy to protect the rights of those with disabilities. The same nonviolent advocacy as MLK and Gandhi. He has been arrested more than 30 times fighting for the civil and human rights of people with disabilities. I was reminded that disability rights are civil rights.

Later that same week, we all heard the news of the death of President George H.W. Bush. He considered one of his greatest accomplishments of his presidency the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); the equivalent of the Civil Rights Act for individuals with disabilities. He was proud of being the president who made people with disabilities a part of their community .
ADA required all sectors of society to remove barriers that prevented people with disabilities from full participation in their communities. While many think of ADA in relation to ramps and elevators, this legislation also included the social and interpersonal aspects of accommodation, as well as employment.

President George H.W. Bush was reported to have been particularly receptive to the discussions with the National Council on Disability when the ADA was first proposed to Reagan. It was theorized that perhaps his son’s dyslexia or his daughter’s illness and ultimate death had contributed to that empathic position. Signing ADA was a prescient one considering he would spend his final years of a wonderfully active life, in a wheelchair, and thus directly see the benefits of the act he signed.

As we all reflect on the advent of ADA with President Bush’s passing, there is the opportunity to ask how we can make our communities more accessible, remembering this to mean not only physical but attitudinal. We still have more that can be done. Bob Kafka’s battle with transportation for work is not fully resolved. It saddens me that the quality of life for a person with disabilities is dependent on the law. Any community is better when everyone has equal opportunity. But my reflection of Thanksgiving included those of appreciation for all of those before me who have built the laws for civil rights and human rights…including King, Bush and Kafka.

“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” JFK

AWS Logo

Who Are The Champions?

The lyrics from Queen’s We Are The Champions took on new meaning at the October 1, 2018 Northeast Indiana Human Resources Association (NIHRA) monthly meeting on inclusive employment.  More than 150 human resource professionals heard this call to action:  “Will you be the champion in your company to start the conversation about hiring individuals with disabilities?”

A panel discussion involving Greater Fort Wayne, Inc., Scherer Resources, Partners in Autism and a recent graduate from Ball State who has a disability challenged the group to be intentional in expanding hiring practices that included disability.  Greater Fort Wayne, Inc. added a disability employment coordinator to begin the dialogue with its member organizations.  Scherer Resources launched a training program on understanding disability and the business culture necessary to embrace and support inclusive employment.  Partners in Autism has an employment training program and builds relationships with employers to hire individuals with autism.  College graduates with disabilities are well-qualified with bachelor and master degrees in public service, library science, computer technology, and marketing and communication yet when the disability is disclosed an interview rarely occurs.

What can you do to champion inclusive employment in your organization?  Start by asking who knows someone with a disability.  You might be surprised how many people do.  Then ask about their employment status.  You might be surprised by those answers – “I don’t know or never thought about it.”  Expand the conversation and questions to your professional network, vendors and contractors.  More surprises?

As you read this, will you answer the call to action….Will you be the champion?