Education Series Part 1: Parent Perspective

The world of special education can be difficult to navigate. The first step to advocating for your child is to understand key terms, options for education and your rights when working with the school. With this basic knowledge, parents/caregivers can understand their role in the education process.

  • What is a Case Conference? This is a meeting between parents and school personnel to develop a student’s IEP. This is an important session to strengthen communication between all involved and advocate for the student.
  • What is an IEP? Individualized Education Plan, it seems scary but it is crucial to your child’s education. This determines that your child has services and accommodations catered to his/her special needs not provided in standard education.
  • Diploma or Certificate track? Some may not know that special education students may not end their school career with a diploma. Depending on graduation requirements enforced by each state, a student will end high school with either a diploma or a certificate of completion. The certificate track is for students that will not be able to complete the state’s requirements for a diploma. The decision to choose either track will be a collaborative decision between the parents/caregivers and educators.
  • Know your rights. As a parent/caregiver, you have rights to protect your child and their education. The following are important to consider to come to the table prepared to advocate for your child’s education:
    • You have the right to ask questions about and disagree with parts of your child’s IEP. Be sure to request and save copies of the IEP when any changes are made.
    • You have the right to bring support into the case conference, including family members, friends or professional advocates. As a courtesy, be sure to inform the school personnel if you are bringing additional people into the meeting.
    • The conference should be held at a mutually agreed upon date and time. The school will make a suggestion, but you can call and let them know what works best for you.
    • You have the right to end the conference at any time and request to continue at a later date if you are uncomfortable with the direction.
    • A copy of the IEP should be provided to you within 10 days of the conference date. Once you receive the IEP, you have an additional 10 days to review and respond to the school.  The IEP will take affect after the 10 day review window, so be sure to voice any questions or concerns within that time period.

Voting Rights

In the 2016 election, a presidential election, national voter turnout was only 61.4% of those eligible, 56% in Indiana. As we near the midterm elections in November, it is predicted that only 40% of those eligible will vote.  How many of those aren’t voting because they don’t know how to access the voting booth or are unaware of the importance of midterm elections?  For those with disabilities, these are common factors for not voting.

The first thing you need to know is that local elections are just as important as Presidential elections. Our local and statewide officials impact decisions that affect our lives. Those with disabilities who rely on our government to support their needs should be aware of and have a say in who represents them when important legislations are passed.  Many of those representatives are found at the state and local level. Researching the issues around what each candidate bases their platforms could help become more informed and decide whether or not those issues impact your life enough to choose to vote. Chances are, they will.

A major factor in lack of voter turnout amongst those with disabilities is the accessibility of the polling locations or the ability to get to a polling location. However, if you are unable to cast your vote at your designated polling place, you have many options to still vote. You can mail in a ballot or call in a voting board to somewhere in which you are confined due to illness and cast your vote with them. What if you make it to the polling location but need help? You can bring someone in to help you or even ask poll workers to assist. You can even register to vote from home. Don’t let your designated polling location be a barrier to exercising your right to vote.

Midterm elections are on November 6th. That means you still have time to register (deadline is October 9th). In the meantime, go here to learn about your voting rights and do research on important topics that will come up in this election. If you know someone with a disability who has not been voting for any of these reasons, please share this information with them. We all can make a difference in our country and it starts by choosing leaders that have our best interests as priority. See you at the polls!

Embracing Strengths

Recently, our team at AWS Foundation went through the Gallup Strengths Finder training.  The premise of this training is that people should focus their time and energy on growing their natural strengths as opposed to remediating their weaknesses.  The training itself was empowering and has caused many team members to begin identifying their strengths in the work environment.

With the timing of our training coinciding with the start of a new school year, it made me wonder how school experiences and outcomes could be different for so many of our students if schools took this same approach.  It is certainly evident that the consistent and frequent use of standardized and achievement testing forces educators to focus on the deficits within our students; in particular those with a disability or other learning challenges.  The focus is on remediating those deficits in order to pass the test.  But taking into consideration this nationally-based Strengths Finder training which is used by many in the workforce, how can school staff be intentional about helping students of all abilities not only identify but also grow their strengths?

A strengths focused approach starts with encouraging an inclusive classroom environment.  Before we jump to count the number of ways a student doesn’t fit or belong in the classroom, I encourage teachers to seriously take time to reflect on what each student can add to the classroom community and environment.  Who can say what is in store for the future? For many, our lives may be directly impacted through a disability lens, whether that be a tragic accident that leaves us disabled or a future family member who may end up diagnosed with a disability.  Someday, for all of us, there will come a time when we cannot do or think as we once could.  Are we creating a society for our future focused on strengths or deficits?

AWS Foundation is using a unique opportunity to help special educators in Northeast IN build upon their strengths.  Using an application process, AWSF is providing funding for 25 special educator scholarships for attendance at this year’s national Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) Convention.  The intent is to allow these stand-out teachers the chance to attend a national training to refine their classroom skills and sharpen their instructional strengths in order to take back to their schools and classrooms.  This is a new grant endeavor for the foundation, and we encourage educators to also take a chance on a new thought process and Think Differently About Disabilities.

From the CEO: Loneliness

It is not uncommon for me to read the obituary of strangers. Sometimes the picture catches my attention, their age, or some key word. In March I read one in a regional newspaper about John Cacioppo. For four decades Dr. Cacioppo, was a researcher on loneliness. His obituary said that he was sometimes called Dr. Loneliness. I had to do more research.

Google told me that he wrote several books and over 500 articles on the subject of loneliness. He wrote that loneliness is more than a state of mind—it is a disease that is contagious, inheritable and damages the heart.
His interest in this area of research was attributed to a near death experience he had as a young man when he learned what was really important in life—“love and social connection.” Loneliness is the absence of social connection. It isn’t how many people you know but rather meaningful interactions; a sense of meaning and purpose. Cacioppo estimated that about one-quarter of the population regularly feels lonely and that loneliness poses an enhanced risk of death as significant as that of being obese or smoking.

The Indiana Institute on Disability and Community reports that almost 75% of waiver clients spend the majority of their day in their residence, activity center or sheltered workshop. For too many of these individuals, paid staff are the only people with whom they interact on a daily basis.

Each of our days may be filled with chance encounters with neighbors at the mailbox, friends at church, fitness clubs or PTA meetings. We may have friends at work, book club or community volunteer activities. Each encounter contributes to a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives and fights off the disease of loneliness. For the person with a disability who is spending their days in workshops or activity centers, their co-workers are their friends and too often the only non-paid interaction of the day.

One of AWS Foundation’s initiatives is Social Enrichment. We recognize the isolation and loneliness that is a routine part of life for the person with a disability. Through inclusive social, recreational and arts programs, we seek to engage and inspire individuals with enduring disabilities. 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 all want a life with a variety of experiences.

What can you do to help with fighting the illness of loneliness for the person with a disability? Is there someone in your neighborhood who would welcome a visit or perhaps an invitation to your next backyard grill? Perhaps a cup of coffee after the church service is one that can be shared. Where is there the opportunity to provide a sense of meaning and purpose?

We all want a life that is shared. We all want a life with a social connection and less loneliness.

Celebrating our 10th Year

Last month we finished our year-long 10th Anniversary celebration.  As we look back on the year, we also look to our future in making Northeast Indiana a thriving, inclusive community for those with disabilities. Here’s a look at all of the fun we’ve had this past year.

TinCaps Game

We kicked off our celebration at our annual TinCaps game. To make this year’s event extra special, we added a few surprises. The TinCaps provided opportunities for some of our friends to play on-field games that were a blast! We also gave out limited edition AWS Foundation hats to guests. These annual games are always fun, but our 2017 game was an all-time high with record attendance and activities.



Buddy Benches

For those who don’t know, a Buddy Bench is a catalyst for friendship. A child sits on the bench to let other children know he/she wants to play. We asked local artists to paint benches which we placed at ten different schools. These schools were selected for continues efforts to enhance the education of their students with disabilities. Four of those benches honored founding board members who had fulfilled their board terms, Andy Brooks, Patti Hays (current CEO), Ben Eisbart and the late Ian Rolland.


Omnibus Lecture

How many people can say they’ve met an astronaut? We can! As part of their Omnibus Lecture Series, IPFW (now PFW) featured speaker Captain Mark Kelley. We couldn’t pass up a chance to hear him speak about his wife (Gabby Giffords) and how she became a person with a disability after an assassination attempt. As a sponsor of the lecture, we got a chance to meet Captain Kelley which was an opportunity of a lifetime. The most exciting part of the night, though, was hearing his story about how disability can happen to anyone at any time, and the strength of his wife to overcome her new life challenges.

Giving Tuesday

To represent our ten years of grant making, we gave local non-profit disability service providers a chance to receive $10,000 each. On Giving Tuesday, any new or increased donations they received were matched by AWS Foundation dollar for dollar. It was an exciting campaign and we gave away $44,727.61. Two organizations reached their fundraising goal to recieve the full $10,000!

Sensory Kits

Everyone deserves the opportunity to engage in community activities. For some this is difficult because the environment can be too bright, too noisy and overstimulating. We partnered with area venues to provide sensory kits at their guest services to check out during events. These kits are filled with items to help families of kids and adults with sensory sensitivities enjoy events they may otherwise avoid. Since our launch of the kits with the Coliseum, TinCaps and Embassy Theatre, we have received overwhelming gratitude and requests for the kits in other venues across Northeast Indiana.


Website Scavenger Hunt

Possibly the most exciting activity we did for our 10th Anniversary was our website scavenger hunt. We placed ten icons all over our website. When people found all ten icons, they were able to vote for their favorite nonprofit organization serving those with disabilities in Northeast Indiana. The organization with the most votes received $10,000 and 9 others received $1,000 each. The hunt went on for the entire month of May.  It was a close race and we loved seeing the daily changes in votes. This win-win game introduced more people to AWS Foundation as well as the organizations we support.

We had fun celebrating our 10th Anniversary for an entire year! Over the past ten years our organization has grown from one employee to seven, from 16 grantees to over 130, and from granting $300,000 per year to over $4 million per year. We are proud of the strides we’ve made for those with disabilities in Northeast Indiana, but more importantly, we are excited at what we know we can achieve in the future. Thanks to all of you who support our mission and follow along on this journey, stay tuned for what’s next.

From the CEO: Bravery

Maybe you’ve heard Eleanor Roosevelt’s philosophy: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

It served as my mantra on more than one fear-filled occasion, because there’s a lot of wisdom packed into that one sentence.  However, what Eleanor really said about fear was:

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.

You are able to say to yourself, “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.”

The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it. If you fail anywhere along the line it will take away your confidence. You must make yourself succeed every time. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

This month, 90 people got the chance to do just that – face their fears and do the thing they thought they could not! The mission, should they choose to accept it, was to rappel down a 14-story building, Tom-Cruise-style….

It was all to raise money for a good cause – GiGi’s Playhouse! GiGi’s playhouse, for those who don’t know, provides free educational and therapeutic programs for individuals with Down syndrome.

And while GiGi’s received corporate sponsorships for the mission, NO ONE from several of the sponsoring employers was willing to take the risk and participate.  So…when AWS Foundation was offered a spot, Eleanor’s words came to mind, and I accepted GiGi’s invitation.

Heights don’t bother me….falling, yes….but not heights. Roller coasters, high dives, bungee jumping are not in my purview of entertaining ideas, but rappelling is a controlled and safe descent.  I am all about control. I thought I could do it.

When I woke the morning of the event, I heard thunder and rain falling.  I will admit the thought that I had “dodged that bullet” occurred to me.  By 9:00AM, however, the rain had stopped and people began to descend.

I suited up: a harness, grappling lines, walkie talkie, gloves and helmet. I readied for my instructions. Lightening and storms meant we were nearly two hours behind schedule.  Again, I thought I might have received an 11th hour reprieve…  However, while I waited anxiously, I heard story after story of excitement from those who’d already rappelled. I could feel the adrenaline. Finally, we got the all clear.

I can do this!

Cameron, a young man with Down syndrome went before me.  He admired my Spider Man shirt. I admired his unwavering excitement.  He was the first to volunteer in our group to control his own lines and release the safety locks.  Bravely, he hoisted himself onto the wall of the room and showed us how it was done.  He shared the trip with a mentor who recorded the experience with her GoPro.  He got tired part way, he went too fast and his safety line locked, he radioed up for help and with encouragement finished the descent.  We weren’t allowed to look over the edge until it was our turn but I heard everyone cheering as he safely placed his feet on the ground below.

If you want to see more, from the safety of the ground, check out our video below.  This was a great fundraiser that also raised awareness of the great activities provided by Gigi’s, but there was much more to be gained.  I retold my story over the next few days and posted the picture on Facebook as I stepped off the edge of that building.  My take away was more than the pictures and bragging rights, however.  I learned so much more in watching the young man go before me.  His lesson for me applies to many other situations in life for those with disabilities who are trying to face a daunting challenge.

  • Be Prepared. Practice in a safe space where mistakes can be identified and corrected by those who care about your success.
  • Have a safety line. Even with the best practices, a back-up plan can help ensure a successful journey.
  • Take a break when you need it. Catch your breath, ask for help, and keep at it.
  • Share the journey. Any journey is better when shared.
  • Be sure to celebrate. We all have challenges in life.  Share in the successes of others and go ahead and brag so they can celebrate with yours.

I suspect years from now it won’t be my journey to the ground that will replay when I am faced with a challenge but rather the bravery of Cameron and how he exemplified the spirit of Eleanor’s words…

“Do one thing every day that scares you… even the thing you think you cannot do.”  This is the routine for many of those with disabilities.

From the CEO: Employment

Some restaurants provide seating with a clear view of the activities in the kitchen and, if available, these are the seats I always request.  To see so many people in a small space with clear choreographed roles is mesmerizing. Recently I had that opportunity and was awestruck to see a young man working the station in front of the fiery oven. He was moving back and forth between the computer screen posting orders, the prep area and his cook station. There was a reason he stood out from the rest of the white coated chefs: he had just one hand.
This young man removed hot casseroles to add ingredients and then reinsert to the flaming oven, managed a mandolin to slice vegetables, and moved dozens of entrees with precision. That restaurant had hired a skilled employee who kept pace with his peers.

In encouraging employers to consider hiring individuals with disabilities, Carol Glazer, CEO of National Organization on Disability, has said “If you think about people who have to navigate a world that was not built for them, you have to be a good problem solver.”  This chef was an amazing problem solver, such as using an insulated towel to balance hot plates on his elbow of his effected arm.

What businesses in Northeast Indiana have seen the same success? Who else looks to the talent pool of individuals with disabilities as a resource?  Through a recent grant from AWS Foundation to Greater Fort Wayne Inc. we hope to see that talent pool increase. By focusing on paid employment, internships and volunteer opportunities, GFW will work to open pathways to employment for people of all abilities.

Stephen Hawking, the recently deceased astrophysicist who spent his final decades of life in a wheelchair and was able to speak with only computer assistance because of ALS, was a visible advocate for those with disabilities being productive employees.  He said his research was possible because he was freed from the typical demands of classroom instruction in light that he couldn’t stand in front of a group of students and teach. In his introduction to a World Health Organization report on disabilities he said, “We have a moral duty to remove the barriers to participation and to invest sufficient funding and expertise to unlock the vast potential of people with disabilities.”

I invite you to join that same journey to remove barriers. If you are interested in learning more call Kevin Morse at GFW Inc.

TinCaps Game 2018

We had another fun day at Parkview Field cheering on the TinCaps with our friends. Over 1,000 people joined us for a TinCaps win! This annual game gives us a chance to meet the people we serve, making lasting connections. As a bonus, everyone gets out and has a great time. Thank you to all who joined us and we will see you again next year!

Family Voices Heart to Heart Conference

Join Family Voices Indiana for its 2018 Heart to Heart Conference, Friday, May 11, at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne. Heart to Heart is a day of learning and support for families of children and youth with special health care needs and the professionals who serve them. Conference topics include funding care and services, waivers, transition to adulthood, special education and more, all presented by parents with first-hand experience caring for a child with special needs. Attendees also will have time to network and visit exhibitors at the conference and AWS Foundation’s disABILITIES Expo. Register now, or email for more information.

9th Annnual disABILITIES Expo

Join us for the 9th annual disABILITIES Expo on Saturday, May 12th, 10am – 3pm. This year boasts the same fun with even more opportunities to learn about programs and services for those with disabilities in Northeast Indiana. You’ll find old favorites and new additions to enhance your experience. With performances, activities, art and exhibitor booths, there’s something there for the whole family.

Anyone can learn to play tennis with Turnstone’s tennis clinics. They will offer adaptive stand up tennis for those with physical disabilities, adaptive tennis for those with intellectual or developmental disabilities and wheelchair tennis. Our popular art exhibit and sale will feature beautiful work from many of our areas best artists with disabilities. You won’t want to miss performances by the many talented groups that come back every year. If you love animals, we always enjoy our favorite therapy dogs from Canine Companions and this year we are welcoming Mark’s Ark for a hands-on experience! Most importantly, we have over 110 exhibitors ready to tell you everything you need to know for a healthy, fully enriched life in our community for those with disabilities.

You can learn more at Don’t miss your chance to have all of your resources in one place and enjoy a day with family, friends and lots of fun. We hope to see you there!