From the CEO: Disability Employment Awareness Month

The first Friday of each month the economic geek in me watches for the phone alert on new job growth.  I didn’t do well in high school economics and thankfully I didn’t have to take it in college. However, I recall enough to know that job growth, or lack thereof, can trigger responses from Wall Street and is sure to generate a tweet or two.

Recent numbers continue to show that the number of people filing for unemployment benefits is at the lowest level since I graduated from college (four decades!) More jobs are being added. Wages, even in Indiana, are slowly creeping up. We watch, waiting for comments about what is “full employment” and have people quit looking?  Seasonal fluctuations are evident.  What can I make of all of the numbers?

The first Friday in October brought additional numbers in light that this is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The labor force participation rate for people with disabilities is up one percentage point over the same month last year.  This is the percentage of population working or actively looking for work. Good news…right?  The thing is that participation rate is 34.1% compared to 76.6% for people without a disability. It may not be great, but it is moving in the right direction and it has been a positive trend since early 2016.

I can’t speak for the entire country but I can speculate on a few factors that might be influencing that trend in Northeast Indiana.

  • Focus on Transition. Select high schools have clear programming for all students directing options, including employment, for post-graduation.
  • Increasing Universal design in office buildings and other facilities. Employers who evaluate work space by universal design criteria rather than just ADA are sending messages to people of all abilities that they are welcome to join their workforce.
  • Transportation efforts . Transportation to the worksite continues to be a major barrier for those with varying abilities. Grants from AWS Foundation have helped increase ridership with both Citilink and CTN.
  • Repeated messaging. When any individual repeatedly hears the question about “what do they want to do when they grow up” they build a future plan based on an assumption of work. More and more, those with disabilities have that question as part of a school IEP and from supportive communities.
  • Experience . As we build a more inclusive community in the arts, recreation, and other aspects of Northeast Indiana we send the message that the entire community, including employers, is welcoming of people of all abilities.

All of these elements are helping NEI provide employment options for people of varying abilities. But let’s end with one specific story because it really is about each person as a unique individual.  I have been told the story of a young woman with a disability who did not do well with the typical interview format. She wanted to work and had ability! A keen interviewer realized that rather than conduct a face to face inquisition, a casual conversation while walking through the place of employment might be a better gauge of her ability. During this walk, they talked about her personal likes and why she wanted to work there.  The job she wanted wasn’t available, but he realized they had a qualified candidate for another position. She got the job and gave it her all and according to my source “…the department managers absolutely love her …and she recently celebrated her first anniversary with that store. “

Yes, the national economic indicators say that as a country we are doing better with employment, but what are you doing to help? Do you consider the individual and not the job? Do you look at abilities rather than disabilities? Do you send the message that you are welcoming and inclusive? Help celebrate with us National Disability Employment Awareness Month and help make the November and December numbers a little bit better.

Children’s Stories

How do we teach our children to appreciate differences?

This week, AWS Foundation dedicated one of the dozen buddy benches across the region.  This is an initiative to foster friendship among all children, with the goal of having no child alone on the playground. Any child who would like to make a friend or join in a playground activity can sit on the bench and that lets the other kids know to invite them to play.  In talking with the students who joined us at Deer Ridge Elementary, I asked them to tell me about the intent of the bench.

I was moved by how each of the children who raised their hands was able to clearly express the intent of the buddy bench.  They knew that feeling of exclusion and that the reciprocal act was to extend an invitation.  By having the bench there, the teachers had talked with those children about inclusion.

Books are another wonderful way to approach the subject.  This year’s Newberry Medal winner is Hello Universe by Erin Extrada Kelly.  To read this book with your children will allow you to discuss bullying, feeling out of place and ultimately self-acceptance as four young people, while being different, find courage, teamwork and their inner heroes.  Or were you a fan of Dr. Seuss’s, Sneetches?  Are the sneetches with stars on their bellies superior to the plain-belly sneetches?  What about Elmer the Elephant by David Mckee?  Elmer learns that what is unique about him (his patchwork skin) is what should be celebrated and not hidden. I grew up with The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.  Ferdinand was a bull who preferred lounging under the trees sniffing flowers and refused to fight as the other bulls did.  The final message of the enduring story is the importance of being true to one’s self.  As with Hello Universe, self-acceptance is so much a part of understanding differences in that we are all unique.

Ferdinand, Plain-belly Sneetches, Elmer and Kelly’s characters of Virgil and Valencia all tell that story.  The child who first learns self-acceptance is the child that will be accepting of others; accepting of their uniqueness, their differences and will be the one who helps build a more inclusive community. I would love to know your favorite story.

Camp PossAbility by Dustin Faurote

Bicycles are often banalities that are easily ignored; they rust and decay in yards, garages, or are simply forgotten. Many people may find bikes to be a nuisance upon society when health conscious cyclists bogart the road while ignoring the beautifully painted bicycle lane. It can be easy to take cycling and other activities for granted. Opportunities to ride bikes, swim, participate in sports, and essentially embrace life are all too easily accessible for many of us, but for the many people with physical disabilities we too are seen as banal and easily ignored. Thankfully, Lauren Harmison is an undeniably wonderful person who created a place for the physically disabled to embrace life and have fun in ways that are normally impossible; this haven is known as Camp PossAbility. 

For one week a year the camp allows people with physical disabilities to participate in activities that were seemingly far beyond our grasp. For the first time in over a decade I rode a bike, played volleyball in a pool, and enjoyed a lake for more than the view. The week is not an escape from the reality of our disabilities, but a reminder that we can still embrace life and have fun. Camp PossAbility is not only full of many adapted activities to explore, but also great people. Volunteers from all walks of life provide the support many of us need, but this support is not limited to physically assisting campers. A week at Camp PossAbility is a blessing that allows us to experience the many opportunities and adaptations of which the disabled are unaware. Upon leaving camp I could hardly fathom all I had gained: friends who share the same trials and triumphs that accompany disabilities, friends who chose to give their time to help us, as well as the knowledge that I am capable of so much more and there are many opportunities for me to enjoy the banalities I so dearly missed. 

Education Series Part 1: Educator Perspective

Two questions come to mind for any parent/guardian getting to know those working with their child: ‘Do you care about my child?’ and ‘Do you know my child?’  As a teacher this may be your third conference of the day or possibly your fifth conference this week, but for each and every parent it is likely their only conference and by far the most important.

My oldest daughter had taken a math test at school and did not do well.  The school informed me because of the test score she would be placed in a remedial math group; however they completely failed to take into account other factors that strongly pointed to the fact that this test was a fluke.  I am a strong advocate that every child get the instruction he or she needs, but as we left the school that day I walked away feeling my child was seen only as a number.  Instead of the staff truly knowing her, her personality and abilities, she was minimized to a test score.   Needless to say, I walked away from this interaction feeling like the school was not truly invested in my child.

Knowing that strong, school-parent relationships do in fact improve outcomes for students, how do school personnel convey to a parent that they care about and are invested in their students?  Case conferences are a prime time to build positive parent relationships.  Here are some general tips to help use this time as a relationship builder:

  • Be careful not to make the conference more about compliance than the student. The IEP is more than a checklist – it is a plan for an individualized student.  Keep the theme of the meeting focused on Who this conference is about as opposed to What this conference is about.
  • What preparation have you invested in the meeting? Along with data and other academic recommendations, what other positive stories and information have you made a plan to share?
  • Can you speak in depth about any of the student’s interests or involvement beyond school, such as extra-curricular activities?
  • Don’t judge! Raising a child with a disability poses many challenges.  Listen to understand and offer ways the school can support.
  • Be prepared. Be professional. And be passionate about the child’s success.

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.