Creating an Inclusive and Sensory Friendly Community

Did you know that we have some amazing organizations in NE Indiana who have been actively providing and creating sensory friendly environments? A sensory friendly environment is one that offers accommodations for auditory, visual, and olfactory stimulation. Many sensory friendly spaces and places also accommodate communication and social/emotional needs of individuals of all ages and all abilities. Communities are learning that many environments that, at one time would not have seemed like a good fit for some individuals with disabilities, can be welcoming, enriching, and accessible for ALL.

In NE Indiana, sensory friendly environments come in many shapes and forms, ranging from Special Abilities Days at Science Central and McMillan Health, to sensory fanny packs at the Greater Fort Wayne YMCA, and sensory friendly performance at The Civic and the Fort Wayne Ballet – and everything in between. AWS Foundation is working on posting all of these amazing opportunities on our website and Facebook page, so stay tuned.

As we have had the honor to work with organizations who are taking into consideration the needs of individuals who might have sensory needs, we decided to try something new. On June 4th we brought together 30 individuals representing 10 different organizations in NE Indiana who are either currently, or in the planning stage, of building more inclusive environments. These incredibly busy folks gave up 2 ½ hours to learn with us about best practices in creating both inclusive and sensory friendly environments.

The group was joined by a team from the Wabash Miami Area Program, including an Occupational Therapist, Physical Therapist, and Autism Leader. In addition, AWSF staff shared some collective knowledge and experiences to support moving the bar forward in supporting ALL individuals in our community environments.

In response to learning more about what 3D technology can offer to both those with tactile sensory needs and those with vision needs, Cole Finney from Science Central shared… “I was inspired by the discussion we had at the meeting. I am BEYOND excited about the idea of bringing 3D-printing technology to Science Central to better present the many textures of our reptiles.”

Rebekah Coffey from the YMCA of Greater Fort Wayne is already implementing strategies and using tools she learned during the session.  In response to a ‘make and take’ portion of the meeting, Rebekah shared that she is already showing off the universal flash cards at the Y.  She has also been discussing another tool that was shared – using visual schedules for children during transitions. Rebekah  told us, “I have had feedback from parents about how a visual schedule assists with their child’s transitions and I feel more confident in providing this resource.”

One of the most important outcomes of the day was being in a collaborative environment and hearing from the many organizations who are offering programs and addressing sensory needs. Learning from each other is critical as we move to becoming a more inclusive and sensory friendly community.

Now that you know…additional meetings are being planned to take place quarterly.  If you work for an organization who would like to get involved with this collaborative, please email Joni Schmalzried at

From the CEO: Inclusion in the Arts

The first Broadway play I ever saw was in 1980, the Tony winning Children of a Lesser God with actress Marlee Matlin portraying a deaf janitor. I was mesmerized in the fluid dance-like sign language that was so much a part of the play. Matlin is the only deaf performer ever to have won an Academy Award when she later portrayed that same role of Sarah Norman in the movie of the same name.

Earlier this month we witnessed a first when Ali Stroker won a Tony for her role in Oklahoma. This time, instead of the choreography of American Sign Language (ASL), we saw the challenging dance performances that included this woman in a wheelchair. Who would have considered casting the enduring and coquettish Ado Annie with an actor in a wheelchair?

Patty Duke played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker and received a Tony for her performance in 1962. She was recognized as a great actress in light that she was able to so convincingly portray a deaf and blind girl. At that time it was inconceivable to have had a woman with an actual disability on stage.  Bradley Cooper portrayed John Merrick in The Elephant Man and Daniel Day Lewis was Christy Brown in My Left Foot. There are many other great roles of individuals with disabilities who are too often portrayed by able bodied actors.

The author of Oklahoma envisioned a character who was flirtatious and naive when Ado Annie’s role was written. These are not attributes restrictive of a person with a disability. In her acceptance speech Stroker said “There’s a wealth of great performers who identify with having a disability that deserve stage time…”

In Fort Wayne recently, Summit City Music Theatre made performances of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown more welcoming when cast members were added who signed during the performance. This was not an interpreter standing off stage but were ensemble actors, often center stage, signing the entire production.

We make strides in recognizing all abilities when a deaf actress portrays a deaf character. But when actors with visible disabilities portray roles whose descriptors are silent regarding senses, height, mobility or other attributes, then we have a more open and fluid sense of community. CBS has recently pledged to work for authentic representation in entertainment casting to audition actors with disabilities and to cast and hire people with disabilities.

As a community we continue to work toward the vision of an inclusive arts community. Audiences are increasingly diverse. There is still opportunity to ensure that the stage is fully accessible to all. Previous casting types do not have to dictate future. How can we accept Ali Stroker’s charge to be sure that backstages are accessible? When we see individuals like ourselves in a role then we learn that role is available for us!

I can’t say “NO”

10 Years of Celebrating Abilities by: Andie Mosley

Seldom do we get the opportunity to meet the individuals impacted by our grantee organizations. Sometimes we attend sensory-friendly events or tour an organization, and it’s great to see individuals with disabilities thriving in the community. However, my personal favorite time of the year is the disABILITIES Expo where we are all in one place together. Planning an event for over 120 vendors and 1,200 attendees is hard work, but the outcome is always worth the effort.

The disABILITIES Expo epitomizes the purpose of AWS Foundation. Those who attend find resources and outlets where they or those they care for can reach their full potential. A  day where all abilities are celebrated through art, performance and athletics is just the start. Attendees get face-to-face interaction with vendors to find answers to their questions.  And that was exactly the theme of the 10th annual disABILITIES Expo on May 11, 2019. FIND Answers. We joined forces with our new online system navigation tool,, for the theme of what the Expo seeks to do.

Celebrating the 10 year milestone was an exciting undertaking for my first year taking charge of the event. I owe much of the success to my coworkers and committee members who are as passionate about the event as I am. We added more fun this year with a major door prize, a certificate for a trip for a whole family worth $2,000! With the help of FINDER, we also organized a scavenger hunt to get people thinking about “finding answers.” For the first time, the cover of our program guide was determined by a contest in which the winner was an artist with a disability. Her artwork was also turned into a commemorative poster free for all attendees to take home.

Months of work is over in one day. One day filled with joy, excitement, tears, relief, fun, friendship, and answers. Perfection is impossible. I learn that lesson the hard way each time I put myself into a project, but I strive for that perfection because those impacted at the disABILITIES Expo deserve our best work. Though, once the day starts, the days and weeks after, I forget about what went wrong. People told me of their daughter finding help getting a job, a parent learning about a resource that they’ve desperately needed, and the enjoyment that everyone found in the performances and the art. The disABILITIES Expo is for everyone. Join us next year on May 9th, 2020.

FINDER, The Right Tool for the Job by Vicki Lee Johnson

My husband and I enjoy do-it-yourself projects. For us, these are the kind of simple decorating, building and remodeling projects done around our home that bring us joy and increase the value of our home. Some projects go smoothly. Others, not so much.  One of the most important things we’ve learned over the years is that when we have the right tools, we are more successful in our endeavor with less effort and stress involved. The right tools make a positive difference. So what does using the right tool for the job look like when trying to find answers to disability-related questions and locate services close to where you live? is a new online tool specifically designed to connect people with disability-related programs, services and supports in their local community located anywhere in Indiana. It’s FREE and can create a customized list of resources based on a person’s unique situation and needs. FINDER is easy to use. It can support first-time users with a step-by-step guide, or for those more experienced users, it has advanced search features. Regardless of how information is located, search results are immediately available, can be saved for future use and shared.

Like any tool, the more we use it and the better it’s maintained the more valuable it becomes over time. It develops into the “go to” tool that we rely on most to complete many different jobs. In addition to its existing content, is designed to give each of us the opportunity to submit new information and report changes needed to an existing listing that may benefit others. All of the information and resources shared are reviewed, verified and approved before they are published to ensure their accuracy and value. Promoting collaboration and sharing user feedback supports inclusion of opportunities and resources of all sizes and types from every community state-wide.

As my husband and I find more projects, it becomes more important than ever to build our knowledge and skills to complete each job. Having the right tool for the job gives us an advantage. When faced with challenges to help people of all abilities find the answers they need, having FINDER in our toolbox gives us the advantage we need to get the job done!

For more information visit FINDER or email

Spectrum 23.9: Not Your Typical Radio Station

Online radio has grown in recent years, making it a viable way to get your message out there. From podcasts to streaming services, more and more people are utilizing this method as creative expression and serving communities with information and promotion of causes. For John Graham of Spectrum 23.9, it’s also about following his dreams and bringing his friends along with him.

Spectrum 23.9 launched on September 7, 2018. Prior to Spectrum’s launch, John created Radio for a Cause. “Radio for a Cause combines my love of radio broadcasting with making an impact in the community,” he says. A young man on the autism spectrum, John started broadcasting as part of the student radio program at Homestead High School. He uses Radio for a Cause to promote those doing good for the community and supporting others with disabilities to learn new skills in media. According to John, Spectrum is just one piece of the Radio for a Cause puzzle and those interested in all types of media can look forward to more to come. So what exactly can you expect with Spectrum 23.9?

The team has four members, including John. They produce three shows. Jake covers local and national sports while Grahamy (John’s radio name) and J Breezy hit you with movie reviews and discussion of upcoming films. As Spectrum 23.9 is a 24/7 streaming radio station, when you’re not hearing their voices, you can catch a variety of music. Rounding out the crew is Sam, who is in charge of marketing. The team is also working to create a listener-based call in show for disability support and of course, this is only the beginning.

In the short time they’ve been broadcasting, Spectrum 23.9 has seen growth in their viewership, even reaching someone in Germany! While John’s hard work plays the biggest role in Spectrum’s success, he is grateful for the support of Chuck & Lisa Surack of Sweetwater, as well as Tommy Guest of Partners in Autism. “Ten years from now, I am confident in this business growing,” he says. “I can’t wait to continue to make a difference in the community and give more creators in the disabled community a new medium in the media field.”

You can catch all of Spectrum’s programming at as well as download the app on either Google Play or the Apple store.

#1 Indiana Disability Resource FINDER

On Thursday, we officially launched a new free program just for Indiana called! Affectionately nicknamed FINDER, it’s another step in our master plan to make it easier for people of all abilities to identify and locate disability-related resources in their local communities. Funded by AWS Foundation, FINDER was made possible with the help of nonprofit organizations, State of Indiana representatives and families from across Indiana… And we are just getting started (Click here for video).


For years, parents have talked about the many challenges they face when trying to navigate a complex web of services, programs and other disability-related community resources. They face huge road blocks in trying to identify what local resources are available to help them. Interestingly enough, when we talked with service providers, they too had difficulty finding information to assist the many unique needs of each person they served. If experienced professionals are challenged to locate information, how hard is it for someone new to the disability community?

Enter It offers individuals reliable, timely and geographically relevant information so they can make an informed decision on what is right for them and their personal situation.

FINDER collects and organizes contact and service information from around Indiana, giving 24/7 access to timely and reliable information improving quality of life for Hoosiers living with an intellectual, developmental or physical disability.

What’s listed and how are listings added?

FINDER contains nearly 2,000 service providers located across the state with the potential to include thousands more. To grow the system, program, service and equipment providers are asked to logon to to check for their listing. Once found, they can claim their listing and update existing information. If they are not listed in FINDER, providers can sign up to enter their information. Also if you know of a resource that is missing from FINDER, you are encouraged to submit information online at Before it’s published, all information displayed on FINDER is reviewed and verified.

While we are excited with all that’s been accomplished, we know that the adventure is just beginning. Every time FINDER is used, we will learn more from each search, listing and search result. It’s how we will continue to improve! Please help us by searching FINDER for information in your community today. For more information, email

AWS Foundation in collaboration with nonprofit organizations and State of Indiana representatives, Announces Indiana Disability Resource FINDER program.

Fort Wayne (March 21, 2019) – AWS Foundation announced today the creation of Indiana Disability Resource FINDER ( The online program was developed through a collaborative effort with State of Indiana representatives and dozens of nonprofit organizations located around the state to connect individuals with disabilities, their families and caregivers to services, programs and supports in their communities across Indiana. This state-wide program known as FINDER is free.


FINDER is designed to collect and organize contact and service information from around Indiana, giving 24/7 access to timely and reliable information improving quality of life for Hoosiers living with an intellectual, developmental or physical disability. AWS Foundation covered all direct costs for the project and thousands of hours were spent by community members, organizations and Foundation staff over the last two years to establish Indiana Disability Resource FINDER (


“Over the years, AWS Foundation has continued to ask individuals, families and caregivers what could be done to best assist them. Locating reliable information was always at the top of the list. We realized if the Foundation could solve the information problem, it would be a game changer,” says Larry Adelman, AWS Foundation Board Chair.


To date, over 100 program and service providers around Indiana along with nearly as many self-advocates and family members have participated in the development process to determine how best to easily access and share quality information. FINDER ( is the first phase of the project released for public use.


“When a family hears of a diagnosis that will have life long implications the first reaction might be “What should I do now?”.  FINDER will help empower that parent, teacher, caregiver or other to find answers to their questions and become a more informed advocate,” says Patti Hays, CEO of AWS Foundation. “Access to knowledge is empowering.”


Currently Indiana Disability Resource FINDER contains nearly 2,000 unique service providers located across the state with the potential to include thousands more. Program, service and equipment providers are asked to logon to to verify if their information is on the website. Organizations can update an existing listing or enter new information. All information displayed on FINDER is reviewed and verified before published.


“The state of Indiana is well aware that each individual with a disability is unique and requires their own treatment plan that will help them thrive,” Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch said. “By connecting providers, individuals with disabilities, their families and caregivers, we are widening the pool of resources and will ultimately get better care to our friends with different abilities.”


“Trying to raise two sons with autism while also being their advocate meant that I needed to understand what service options were available and how to access them. The problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know or where to even begin,” states parent Kelly Pence. “The idea of having one central database for all of us to contribute to and access vetted, current information is a breath of fresh air.”


When an existing program was not found that could answer all of Indiana’s needs, a Fort Wayne company was selected by AWS Foundation to develop new software. Aptera, Inc. participated with individuals, families and service providers in a discovery process designed to fully understand what was needed to support the wide range of community requirements before being awarded development work for the FINDER site.


“When AWS Foundation approached us with this project the entire Aptera team was excited about the opportunity,” states TK Herman, President & CEO of Aptera, Inc. “There are so many great organizations around our state that significantly impact the lives of our families, friends and neighbors living with a disability. Knowing that we could develop a program using leading technology to help others more easily find the support they need is incredibly satisfying. Of all the projects we have worked on as a company, this project is the most impactful to the community.”


AWS Foundation asks that if a resource that benefits the disability community is missing from the FINDER site, individuals are to submit information online at

Special Education Series Part 5: Educator Perspective

In this final newsletter of the case conference series, I’d like to dive into the 90/10 rule.  The rule is fairly simple – 90% of your communication with parents should be focused on positive goals, solutions to problems, and acknowledging progress, while 10% of your communication should be focused on problems or issues.  Where things get more complicated is when you begin to think of all the 90/10 rule can apply.  Without getting overwhelmed let’s break it down into two categories, case conferences and general communication.

For case conferences it is important to consider this rule when creating your agenda.  If you are not using an agenda, this is critical.  Positive and effective communication doesn’t happen by chance.  It happens when thought and planning has been put behind the words.  As you are listing concerns and issues that need to be addressed, make sure for each one you are also listing several possible solutions.  Another general rule is the 4:1 ration of positive to negative feedback.  So, for each concern be sure have four positive statements to add to them conversation.  Again, this will require planning ahead of time but will likely make your meeting and future interactions with the family much more positive and productive.  When thinking about a case conference length, generally speaking they run about an hour so make sure at least 50 minutes of that hour is spent on problem solving and setting positive goals, while no more than ten minutes is spent discussing problems.  Be sure to encourage any other staff attending the conference to follow the same rules.

As for general communication, the focus should on what do you have in place as an educator to communicate positive feedback.  Do you have times scheduled into your plans to contact parents only to share something positive?  Do you ever reach out to students in some way only to provide positive encouragement?  Do you ever have planned celebrations when students reach a goal?  Do these celebrations include communicating with the parents?  Communicating when something goes wrong or there is a problem tends to come more naturally in the school environment and is an important part of communication; however it’s the effort you put into the positive communication that will help you to develop a true working partnership with parents and guardians.  And when we know that partnering with families improves student outcomes, why would we not make these efforts?

Grantee Spotlight: GiGi’s Playhouse

It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t already know this organization, but for those that don’t, GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne is a Down syndrome achievement center. The Fort Wayne Playhouse opened in January of 2016 with the support of community members and grants. With their free programming, individuals with Down syndrome are supported from birth through adulthood. Thursday, March 21st is World Down Syndrome Day, so we thought that March would be the best time to put the spotlight on this fantastic grantee.

In the three short years since their doors opened, GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne has shown immense growth.  Their 2019 participation numbers are doubling from that of last year at the same time. They have also been able to add additional programming such as a preschool and under playgroup, GiGiFIT, Drums Alive and additional days for Cooking Club. With the opening of GiGi’s Genesis Health Bar they continue enhancing skill building and promoting awareness in our community.

“GiGi’s Genesis Health Bar continues to increase confidence, communication and overall employable skills in our GiGi U graduates,” says Holly Tonak, GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne Executive Director. “Oftentimes, we hear that the day they work at Genesis is their favorite day of the week.” Holly refers to Playhouse participants as her friends and considers herself lucky to know them all.  That is true for anyone that gets to meet one of Holly’s friends as the confidence they build at the Playhouse radiates from them.

Be sure to check out Genesis Health Bar and the GiGi’s storefront. Not only will you support a worthy organization and learn about Holly’s friends, but are sure to find some great eats or a nice gift for yourself or someone else! Genesis is open Monday – Friday, 10am – 4pm and is located at 6081 N Clinton Street in Fort Wayne.

From the CEO: Women and Disability

I am not a fan of recognition days. National Nurse’s Day. (May 5)  National Pi Day (3.14 of course) and National Get over it Day (March 9 th)…someone has way too much time on their hands.

In 1987 Congress passed a resolution declaring March as National Women’s History Month. March is also Disability Awareness month albeit by designation a year later in 1988. I started to wonder if we could combine the two.

When I have thought of inspirational individuals related to disability in the past, they were primarily male. Matisse or Stephen Hawking and President Bush. I did write once about Harriet Tubman, but looking through history and literature, the stories of men seem to be a little more prevalent.

So for March, let me share a few links where you can find some stories, some perhaps inspirational, some funny and some you may know. Let their words carry you through this month and hopefully longer. Be one of the women who will make a difference in the world…or help one believe they can be that person.

Helen Keller

Simi Linton

Stella Young

Let’s not make it a special day or a special month. Be aware every day and see how you can include people of all abilities each day. I would like to think that I appreciate a good chocolate chip cookie any day (August 4).