Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

12 Actors Changing Disability Representation on Television

12 Actors Changing Disability Representation on Television

The awareness of disabilities and long-term illnesses in the media has risen considerably in the last few years, where actors with disabilities are making a positive impact and landing key roles regardless of their disabilities. There’s an ongoing argument where non-disabled actors are playing disabled roles, even though real disabled actors are available, which is particularly evident in Hollywood films. So within this feature we’ve specifically focused on television media, as there’s a definite increase of disabled actors now landing significant roles in television.

Although the public shouldn’t necessarily look to the media to learn about these disabilities, it’s certainly raising the awareness and helping to dissolve stigmas around the subject. The lack of disabled actors in television and film is something which has improved considerably over the years, however still needs changing and is an area which needs much more discussion and attention.

Good news is that there are already quite a few channels out there trying to make those changes, including the BBC, and some remarkable television shoes that are making waves in the media. A recent one to watch out for is ABC’s new comedy “Speechless” which follows a family of five with a special needs child.

“In July 2014, BBC Director General Tony Hall pledged to quadruple the number of disabled people on screen by 2017.”

This feature outlines 12 actors with disabilities and long-term illnesses that are making a positive awareness in the media with their outstanding performances in television phenomenon such as “Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad,” “Stranger Things” and more. Check out which actors are on the list, as well as an infographic which presents some statistics on the employment of disabled artists within television.

Peter Dinklage

Show Spotlight: Game of Thrones

Disability: Restricted Growth (Dwarfism)

Peter dinkllage

Award-winning actor Peter Dinklage has earned an incredible place in the media spotlight for his outstanding performance as Tyrion Lannister in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” television series.

Winning both a Golden Globe and Emmy Award for his performance as Tyrion Lannister, he’s created a positive awareness around Restricted Growth (Dwarfism), especially not only being part of such a popular television show but playing such a major character within the show.

This is an incredible example of how a real disabled actor playing a pivotal role can have such a positive impact and awareness and that professional actors should be considered for these roles regardless of their disability or long-term illness.

Rather than playing a typical comedy role which Dwarfs are usually often seen playing, Peter has made a breakthrough for both disability in television and increased the awareness of Dwarfism.

Further reading links:

RJ Mitte

Show Spotlight: Breaking Bad

Disability: Cerebral Palsy

RJ Mitte

Looking for acting opportunities where his disability would serve to educate viewers, actor RJ Mitte landed his most iconic role to date as Walter “Flynn” White Junior on AMC’s Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning “Breaking Bad” series.

Living with Cerebral Palsy, just like his “Breaking Bad” character, RJ Mitte is on a mission to get more disabled people on TV and to increase the awareness. Unlike his character Flynn though, Mitte doesn’t need to rely on any walking devices and RJ had to learn to slur his speech to create a more dramatic version of his disability.

A celebrity ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy, RJ Mitte is an inspiration around the world. He’s engaged in public speaking, has been seen gracing the catwalk and was also part of Channel 4’s Paralympic coverage back in September this year.

“He hopes seeing more disabled people on TV will increase understanding of disability and make people more comfortable around disabled people.”

Further reading links:

Gaten Matarazzo

Show Spotlight: Stranger Things

Disability: Cleidocranial Dysplasia

Stranger Things

Bringing awareness to Cleidocranial Dysplasia, a rare genetic disorder, Gaten Matarazzo is an upcoming actor to watch out for! Known for playing Dustin in Netflix’s cult hit series “Stranger Things,” he certainly holds his own as one of the coolest characters.

“It’s a condition where you’re born without your collarbones,” he told Ross. “I don’t have any. It affects your facial growth, your skull growth, your teeth — that’s why I don’t have any [teeth], these are fake right here. I have teeth, but they’re all baby teeth. I need a lot of surgery.”

At just 14 years old, Gaten is making a positive awareness around his disability at such a young age by speaking openly about it on chat shows and other media interviews. Although his disability isn’t directly related to his character in “Stranger Things,” Gaten is demonstrating that a professional actor can be cast for a key role despite their disability. With season 2 of “Stranger Things” on the horizon, there’s plenty more of this charismatic little start to come.

Further reading links:

Russell Harvard

Show Spotlight: Fargo

Disability: Hearing Loss

Russell Harvard

Born with Deafness, Russell Harvard has been acting since a child. Landing his first villainous role as Mr.Wench in “Fargo” the crime-drama television series, he was happy to play somebody that wasn’t himself and play a character that wasn’t defined by being deaf.

Although Russell Harvard’s role in “Fargo” isn’t a positive character to look up to in the show, since he’s a bit of a villain, the idea that Harvard can play a villain (like any other professional actor) is a step in the right direction for showing that actors can land and should audition for major roles regardless of their disabilities.

Further reading links:

Sarah Gordy

Show Spotlight: Call The Midwife

Disability: Down’s Syndrome

Sarah Gordy

Sarah Gordy, a professional actress, dancer, and model with Down’s syndrome, is best known for her high-profile role as Sally Harper in the BBC’s “Call The Midwife,” a television series set during the 1950s. As well as BBC shows, Sarah has acted in short films, radio dramas, commercials and many theatre productions.

With ten years experience on stage and television, her aim is to play roles where people see her as a woman and actress first rather than just someone with Down’s Syndrome. The BBC’s “Call The Midwife” was a major turning point where they didn’t see her as just an actress with a disability; they saw her as a woman first. Some of Gordy’s earlier accounts with the BBC weren’t so promising.

“She told Disability News Service that she was once informed by senior BBC executives “in business suits” that she was “not Down’s enough,” “not pitiful enough” and “too attractive” to play the part of a character with Down’s syndrome.”

This stigma around actors with disabilities needs to end. Someone with a disability like Down’s Syndrome needs to be seen in their right and for their acting talents, not just playing someone with Down’s Syndrome that viewers need to pity and feel sorry for. Sarah Gordy is making viewers look up to her as a role model and a confident and powerful woman.

Further reading links:

Colin Young

Show Spotlight: Call The Midwife

Disability: Cerebral Palsy

Colin Young

Co-star with Sarah Gordy on BBC’s “Call The Midwife,” Colin Young is a disabled actor with Cerebral Palsy. Making his debut in “Call The Midwife,” Colin played the role of Jacob Milligan who had an on-screen relationship with Sally Harper, played by Sarah Gordy who is an actress with Down’s Syndrome.

Although featuring two disabled characters having a relationship has been a massive breakthrough for disability portrayal and acceptance within the media thanks to “Call The Midwife,” both Colin Young and Sarah Gordy believe there is still a long way to go. All professional actors who are disabled should be getting cast for their talent and abilities rather than to just portray their disability.

Further reading links:

Michael J. Fox

Show Spotlight: The Good Wife

Disability: Parkinson’s Disease

Michael J Fox

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1992 at just 30 years old, Michael J. Fox has soldiered on with his acting career, showing determination and becoming a huge inspiration to other people with disabilities and health conditions.

Despite having Parkinson’s Disease, Fox has continuously shown commitment and motivation within his acting career and has successfully contributed to positive awareness around Parkinson’s Disease, by sending out the message that people with a disability or condition can carry out a relatively normal life and do things which they’re passionate about.

Landing his recurring role as the character Louis Canning, a cut-throat lawyer, in the CBS drama “The Good Wife”, Michael J. Fox was able to show that just because he’s an actor with a disability, that doesn’t mean he should have to play a role where he’s portrayed as helpless and needs sympathy for the viewers.

Further reading links:

Jamie Brewer

Show Spotlight: American Horror Story

Disability: Down’s Syndrome

Jamie Brewer

Model, actress and active member within the Down’s Syndrome community, Jamie Brewer has been shining the spotlight on Down’s Syndrome with positivity and showing exactly why people should accept such disabilities, especially within the media, and why disabled actors deserve the same opportunities to present their talents.

Making history on the New York catwalk in February 2015, Jamie Brewer was the first Down’s Syndrome model to walk at fashion week, thanks to designer Carrie Hammer. This was an incredible milestone for Brewer to be at the forefront of, and thus inspiring many others with disabilities.

As well as modeling, Jamie has also been getting a strong reputation for her acting within the television series “American Horror Story.” Playing a range of characters, which included some challenging narratives, the series helped to showcase her acting ability and versatility.

Further reading links:

Robert David Hall

Show Spotlight: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation

Disability: Double Leg Amputee

Robert David Hall

Robert David Hall is a disabled actor who is best known for his character on CBS’s “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” television series. Being a double leg amputee in real life, David Hall plays the role of a medical examiner called AI Robbins.

Not always a double leg amputee, Robert David Hall was severely burned in 1978 from a car accident. After several months in a burn unit and double leg amputation, he now walks comfortably on two prosthetic limbs.

“A committed disability advocate, Hall has used his position to raise awareness of those issues that impact the quality of life for people with disabilities and recently joined the board of directors of the National Organization on Disability.”

Further reading links:

Lauren Potter

Show Spotlight: Glee

Disability: Down’s Syndrome

Lauren Potter

Taking on the character of Becky Jackson on Fox’s musical comedy show “Glee,” Lauren Potter was born with Down’s Syndrome and is helping to increase the awareness for people to look at an individual’s skills rather than their disability or health condition.

“Playing Becky on Glee was SO amazing. I had so much fun over the last six years. It was fun being so spunky and funny, but I also got to do some really dramatic and sometimes even sad scenes. Everyone in my Glee family was so nice and supportive. Because of Glee, I’ve gotten to do so many amazing things, and I’ve gotten to meet so many amazing people and speak out about things that are important”

Although Lauren has brought plenty of positive connotations for “Glee,” the show has also received quite a lot of negative reviews as well. Lauren’s co-star Kevin McHale plays a character called Artie who is in a wheelchair, yet he doesn’t use a wheelchair in real life. This just shows the negative impact that casting non-disabled actors for a disabled role can have, even though Lauren Potter has brought a considerable amount of disability awareness to the show.

Further reading links:

Liam Bairstow

Show Spotlight: Coronation Street

Disability: Down’s Syndrome

Encouraging actors with disabilities to follow their dreams, Liam Bairstow is most known for landing his role as Alex Warner on ITV’s “Coronation Street.” Born with Down’s Syndrome, Liam has had a major part to play when it comes to changing people’s perception of Down’s Syndrome and acceptance of actors with disabilities within television.

Making British history in 2015 for his role on “Coronation Street,” Liam Bairstow was the first actor with Down’s Syndrome to be cast in a British television soap and is certainly one to watch out for!

Further reading links:

Lisa Hammond

Show Spotlight: Eastenders

Disability: Pseudoachondroplasia (Restricted Growth) and Joint Hypermobility

Born with Pseudoachondroplasia (Restricted Growth) and Joint Hypermobility, Lisa Hammond is best known for her character Donna Yates on the BBC’s “Eastenders” series.

Hammond has made an incredible achievement for raising the awareness of Restricted Growth and Joint Hypermobility disabilities, although she has also sadly come under quite a lot of criticism for the role as well. Although Lisa is often seen in a wheelchair in real life, she doesn’t always need to be in it… which led to one of the episodes of Eastenders featuring Donna Yates standing up and out of her wheelchair, which resulted in quite a stir in the media.

“Lisa, who says she will walk in a scene if she feels able, added: ‘But if I can’t or pain levels are bad then I’ll use my chair. I’ve been shouted at. I’ve had people say, “Oi, why are you in a chair when you were walking on EastEnders last night?”

Although negative, the media attention which Hammond received should hopefully make people realize that not all disabilities are as they appear and just because someone might sometimes need a wheelchair, doesn’t mean they need to be in a wheelchair 24/7.

Further reading links:

The Employment of Disabled Actors Within Television

Disabled actors getting cast for a key television role because of their acting ability rather than their disability is the talking point and mission behind many disabled rights organizations.

Although the proportion of the employment of disabled actors within television has increased quite considerably the last few years, there’s still a long way to go. There’s still plenty of cases where able-bodied actors are being cast for disabled roles, rather than disabled actors. This is particularly evident in Hollywood films, however, is still very evident in television as well. Take a look at the below mini infographic which helps put this matter into perspective.

Sources used for infographic:

The Jumblies Project: an Interactive Sensory Story

the jumblies project

By Nicholas Cross, St. John’s School and College

Could You Help Bring the Jumblies to Life?

As a fundraiser I’ve helped bring some wonderful and hugely beneficial projects to life; from state of the art immersive theatres to seemingly impossible to run social enterprises. It’s a tough old job but means once in a while you come across a project so interesting, so undeniably inspiring that you feel a real sense of pride when you start bringing money in for it.

Right now that project is the brainchild of SEN provider St. John’s School & College and digital performance company Spectral Spaces, and it’s called The Jumblies Project.

Spectral Spaces presents The Jumblies from Jeb Hardwick on Vimeo.

The Jumblies Project Starts with a Poem

The Jumblies is a 6 stanza poem written by English artist, poet, illustrator and author, Edward Lear in 1871. Lear is best known for the use of literary nonsense in his writing, which soon becomes clear when but a few lines into the poem the fictional, and presumably very tiny, people called the Jumblies take to sea in a sieve on an adventure!

I won’t reveal too many spoilers but I can assure you it is imaginative, moving, entertaining and well worth reading.

This bizarre and amusing Georgian classic will be adapted by learning disabled pupils of St. John’s with the support of Spectral Spaces and performed at the Brighton Fringe Festival and Brighton Digital Festival in 2017. However unlike your typical, perhaps on occasion dull, school or college performances The Jumblies Project goes a few steps further. The performances will be enhanced and adapted to one of ‘sensory room-esque’ quality with an interactive app for the audience, OptiMusic light beams, movement triggered soundtrack, interactive walls, interactive floor, scent machine and lots much more!

It will take a good 18 weeks of hard work and preparation but most importantly be designed, created, produced, written and performed by 18-25-year-olds with complex learning disabilities, special needs and communication difficulties.

The Jumblies Project is an opportunity for our young people to show everyone out there that no matter your difficulties we are all creative, passionate, talented people and are more than capable of doing something to make our mark on the world. This is not just about putting on a performance unlike any other but about inspiring other young people and showing communities that no one is solely defined by a diagnoses and heck… why not go to sea in sieve (at least metaphorically.)

The project not only spreads a message of inclusivity in the arts, which is one of the hardest industries for any person to get a break in, but has core benefits for the young people involved. It promotes confidence, progresses their education, reduces challenging behavior, lets them experience something new and perhaps most importantly, shows them that their efforts are to be celebrated and applauded, literally.

We Need Your Help to Fund the Jumblies

Sadly nothing in life is free and this dream, from start to finish, costs £5,400 (~$6,800) to become a reality.

So, like any good fundraiser who’s been inspired by an amazing idea to help amazing people, I wondered if you would be as amazed and moved too.

In a risky move, that I’m hoping will make and not break this project, I have turned to conquer the tricky beast that is crowd funding. This, in a nutshell, gives anyone who is interested the chance to contribute financially and help bring The Jumblies to life. It seemed only fitting that a project aiming to spread a message of inclusion and equality should give people the chance to be a part of it.

Using Neighbourly, a crowd funding site targeted at businesses and individuals, we have summarized the project, explaining what we are hoping achieve and that the money, although significant, will be worth every penny.

There is also a rather enjoyable video (see above) that inspired the project and features St. John’s learners, St. John’s ICT Coordinator Dan Axson and Louis, Mark & Matt of Spectral Spaces giving a taster of what the performance would be like.

We are hoping people will make donations of whatever they can spare or at least share the page on their Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts so even if you cannot donate you increase the chance of it being seen by someone who can.

We have already sourced £1,000 (~$1300) from an extremely generous charitable trust but there is a long way to go and not much time in which to do it.

So please click the link, be inspired, be part of something and help the 100+ pupils of a small learning disability college make an enormous difference to their own lives and hopefully the lives of so many others.

The Jumblies Project on Neighbourly: https://www.neighbourly.com/project/57ff9770c7ac8806c4fdbbc5/feed

Nicholas CrossNicholas Cross is a seasoned grant, community and corporate fundraiser for learning disability causes and is the Development Officer for St. John’s School and College. He’s been with the Brighton and Seaford-based SEN school, college and registered charity for over a year and sources the funds to pay for learning disability projects, equipment, and teaching resources.

He’s a writer for and co-founder of Brighton-based lifestyle blog Bright on a Budget and is an avid fan of Texas Hold ‘Em poker and world cinema. Follow Nick @nickthecross and follow St. John’s School and College @stjohns_sussex

Blind Actor Performs in a Southern California Production of “Annie”

Young, Blind Actor Performs in a Local Production of "Annie"

A young actor is getting ready to perform in a local production of the play “Annie” next month, and there’s one thing that distinguishes this talented man from others sharing the stage with him — he’s blind.

Young, Blind Actor Performs in a Local Production of “Annie”

Mason Fessenden, a 16-year-old actor is performing for the first time with actors who can see. The video below is the local Southern California news coverage from ABC 7 Eyewitness News.

Mason Fessenden is an actor and sometimes what people don’t notice is that he’s blind.

“He was born three months early. There were times people told that he would never walk, he would never talk, he would never be able to read braille,” explained his mother, Martha Fessenden.

He’s proved his doctors wrong and although he can’t see, the 16-year-old can sing, act and play the piano.

“He’s great on stage and he sings really well,” said co-star Tessa Barkley. “He just lights up the room.”

This will be Mason’s first time sharing the stage with actors who can see, but his voice coach said she has no doubt in his ability and is even pushing him to dance.

Martha, one proud mother, said she’s confident the world hasn’t seen anything yet. She expects Mason to continue wowing audiences into the future.

“He never sits in a corner and complains about his blindness and…couldn’t ask for anything more,” Martha added as she wiped away tears.

First of all, we want to say that this is a fantastic opportunity for Mason and we wish him the best of luck with his acting and singing. Hopefully, this is one more step in the right direction for disabled actors to be represented on television, film and stage productions.

Second, if you are in the Southern California area, you can watch Mason perform at the International Full Gospel Fellowship of Los Angeles church in Monrovia. He will play Bert Healey in “Annie” from Dec. 8-11 (2016). To purchase tickets you can go to CenterStageInc.com.

Do you think that there should be more actors and actresses with disabilities included in stage, television, and film performances? Tell us what you think in the comment section below!

Source: Young, blind actor breaking barriers in Southern California | abc7.com

Achieving Inclusion with Grit and Gratitude

scrabble letters spelling out the word grateful

By Laura Bratton

Just a few months before I started third grade I was diagnosed with an eye disease. My vision was deteriorating, and I would eventually become blind. So as I started the new school year, my parents were faced with a decision regarding my education. They were told that I would have to leave my current school and go to school in another city. Being a teacher, my mom knew that I was completely capable of staying in the same school. She knew that if I received the appropriate accommodations I could complete third grade just like everyone else. For example, by sitting at the front of the classroom, using large print textbooks, and a magnifier for worksheets I would be able to complete the assignments. My parents also knew that I would greatly benefit from being around all types of students; those without disabilities as well as those with different types of disabilities. So my parents were determined that I would stay in the mainstream school system.

The following is an excerpt from my book Harnessing Courage, which describes the impact of my parents’ decision to keep me in my regular classes:

“I will never forget speaking to a class of middle schoolers one year when I was home from college. Before I spoke, I was in the school office. A lady walked up to me and said, “Please tell your parents thank you for the work that they did.” I looked up at her, confused; I had no clue what she was talking about. I was giving the talk in a different school district than the one in which I grew up. She added, “Because of the work that your parents did for you to keep you in regular public school, countless other children who came behind you are also able to stay in public school.” I stood in the office of that school not sure how to respond. I replied with a simple, “Oh, that is great!” However, it just did not seem like enough. I was excited and touched to know that the bravery my parents displayed not only benefited me, but it also benefited many other children we will never know.”

I am grateful beyond words that I had the opportunity for inclusive education for two main reasons. First, I was able to receive the same level of education my peers received. Teachers expected me to perform at the same level as the other students. Yes, of course, I received the needed accommodations such as twice as much time to complete tests. However, once the accommodations were in place, I was held to the same standard. I learned that I could not use my blindness as an excuse for not performing at a high level.

The second reason I am grateful for inclusive education is because of the socialization I received. Being around students who did not have a disability as well as students who had different types of learning disabilities taught me how to advocate for my needs. For example, I learned how to ask a friend for help when I needed to find the correct lunch table in the cafeteria. I developed the ability to communicate my needs clearly so that I could interact with all students. Receiving the same level of education and socialization as other students gave me the tools I needed to live a productive and full life. For the gift of my parents advocating for me: I am grateful. For the opportunity of inclusive education: I am grateful.

Photo credit: EKG Technician Salary/Flickr

laura bratton

Laura Bratton was born and raised in South Carolina. She graduated from Arizona State University in 2006. In 2010, Laura was the first blind student to graduate from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity. Laura is the pastor at Laurens Road United Methodist Church and founder of Ubi Global LLC. She is the author of Harnessing Courage. Visit Laura’s website at www.ubiglobal.org.

A Place for Parents: Autistics and Allies

Sticker of two people holding hands.

By Larkin Taylor-Parker

Disagreements between stakeholders of various kinds are fairly common in the disability community, but conflict plagues autism discourse. The place of parents is particularly contentious. As I prepared for this post, I glanced around the Internet for what had already been said. There are too many existing attempts to fix this with a blog post, or, worse, one that oversimplifies the conflict or makes a straw man of one side. I decided this would not be another iteration of an endemic, useless thing. As I read others’ thoughts on the subject, I happened on a year-old article called Who Should Lead the Autism Rights Movement? Instantly, I knew how to articulate the problem and solution.

The answer to that question is obvious: people whose lives are most shaped by society’s decisions on what to do with autistic people deserve the final say. Social change that undermines oppression has never been ally-led. Agency as charitable donation is a contradiction in terms. We must take it for ourselves, not wait until others deign to bestow it. The thrust of every argument I have seen against our leadership is that we are too disabled to have a say in our future. I see this sentiment often. It comes couched in sympathy, recommended for convenience’s sake, and presented in the tired terminology of a moldy eugenics textbook in my vintage and antiquarian collection. I have never seen these claims hold up to scrutiny. The arguments are full of transparent fallacies. Besides, Autistics and other people with disabilities are challenging notions of our incapacity in numbers hard to dismiss as anecdotal evidence. Given a measure of control over our lives, we usually improve them. We will always know more about how to do that than allistic* people. We know our priorities, experiences, needs.

Parents may not be able to set the agenda, but they have a natural role in neurodiversity and disability rights efforts. It is partly restraint. They can be quiet in our safe spaces and encourage others to do likewise. They can stop calling anyone capable of typing insufficiently disabled to have valid opinions. They can stop speaking for and talking over us. However, not everything we need from them is passivity. There are active roles no one could better fulfill.

The media asks them about autism before it does us. Parents have the opportunity to amplify our voices where they would otherwise be ignored, redirect questions, challenge purely negative perceptions. Parents can raise money for worthy causes and organizations. The silver lining of the Autism Speaks problem is that many learned fundraising. Parents can raise assertive autistic children with a healthy sense of self-worth. They can bring up kids who carve a place for themselves in the world and understand their right to be here. Parents can stand with autistic children and adults as we demand a fair chance at rich, full, dignified lives.

As parents work to ensure they are on our side, autistics should help. We must find a healthy middle ground between the extremes of ignoring ableism and writing decent people off for one ignorant word. This is more than being humane. It is pragmatism. We need allies more than most groups. At just over one percent of the population, we will never have the numbers to go it alone.

*non-autistic

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated with a new author bio as well as a new featured image. 

Larkin Taylor-Parker is a second-year law student at the University of Georgia. She is interested in disability rights, the experiences of young professionals from historically marginalized groups, and fixing internet culture. She is also an avid recreational tuba player.

Mix Applesauce with Medicine to Create Inclusive Classroom Communities

jars of homemade applesauce

By Alex Dunn

Inclusion is not a place, but rather a philosophy that all students deserve to experience successful academic and social participation side-by-side with peers. 

What does successful inclusion look like?  Recently Nicole Eredics on her Inclusive Class Blog asked this question and found this wonderful visual from The Parent Leadership Support Group of Georgia, which was posted on their Facebook page, as a response.

From our four year Smart Inclusion research project, I would like to propose some small changes to this great image in order to recognize that in order to create inclusive classroom communities, we need to acknowledge that no two students are alike and that changes need to be made to existing learning environments to reach and teach every student; “barriers to learning are not, in fact, inherent in the capacities of learners, but instead arise in learners’ interactions with inflexible educational materials and methods.  (CAST Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning, Preface p. iv).

For those like me in the trenches, in schools every day, it is important to ask the question: How can we make a difference to the students and educators we serve and really achieve inclusive classroom communities?  A recent Twitter exchange with Jeannette Van Houten (@jvanhoutensped) and Tim Villegas (@think_inclusive) made me reflect on what we tried to do in our schools at Upper Canada District School Board in Ontario Canada over the past four years.

Educators told us that in order to achieve inclusive classroom communities they, with their students, needed to become proficient across three continuums – inclusion, curriculum, and technology.  In a way, I equate the integration of all three continuums to applesauce and medicine.  Although the technology (e.g., iPads, SMART Technology, Nintendo, Laptops etc) and other classroom manipulatives (e.g., Lego, Wikki Stix etc)  have been the all-important applesauce, I think all those involved with Smart Inclusion research would agree the key to the success for both educators and students has been the way the applesauce of technology has been combined with the medicine of bringing research-based pedagogy (e.g., Universal Design for Learning (UDL), Differentiated Instruction (DI), Aided Language Stimulation, Student, Environments, Tasks, and Tools (SETT) and Participation Models) into practice.  In short, educators cast a UDL net attempting to catch all students but sometimes, despite our best efforts, some students fall through the net and sit on the outside of education looking in which is completely unacceptable.  Pat Mirenda and David Beukleman’s Participation Model (PM) (really Differentiated Instruction with a twist) has provided us a way of catching all students that fall through the net.  As Jeannette Van Houten suggests “failure is a way to move to success”.  The Activity Standards Inventory (ASI), from the PM does just that.  Here is a link to a case study of one of our Smart Inclusion students and how we applied the Participation Model to help identify barriers to participation and subsequent intervention, including the use of technology.

A special thank you to the staff, students and parents at UCDSB for giving their nights and weekends and for sharing their work and that of their children, so that children worldwide can experience the same successful academic and social participation.  This groundbreaking research we have undertaken has been replicated in other school Districts in Ontario and Alberta, Canada.  Many other Districts, educators, parents, and students, worldwide have joined us on our journey to ensure that ALL really means ALL and that we are truly welcoming everyone, all the time, everywhere” (Pat Mirenda).

Photo Credit: Andrew Seaman/Flickr

Alex DunnAs Speech-Language Pathologist at the Upper Canada District School Board and president of Inclusioneers, Alex Dunn has presented across the USA, Canada, Germany, England, Spain, exploring technology (SMART Technology, iDevices, Assistive Technology) and theory as part of Universal Design for Learning Toolkit to ensure ALL students, achieve the goal of meaningful educational, social participation.  Recently Alex Dunn was named SMART Exemplary Educator of the Year for Canada for 2012 and appointed as an Officer for Special Education Technology Special Interest Group for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).  You can find her on Twitter @SmartInclusion or visit the Smart Inclusion Wikispaces Page

Striving for Community as a God-Loving Aspie

man looking up towards heaven thinking about god

By Timotheus “Pharaoh” Gordon

Being autistic and striving to be a Christian is very rigorous at times, especially if there are little resources or examples for such community.

I’ve been practicing Christianity for about a year and two months. It may have been a difficult year of struggles; heck I still have to work on (e.g., having MY OWN convictions that are based on the Bible, not solely word-of-mouth). But I’m growing more convinced that through the power of the Trinity, even autistic people can change the world as Jesus did.

I love studying the bible, praying for people, helping out people, going to mission trips (to take pictures of those experiences), and hanging out.  Sometimes, I would blog about my faith on my website.

Yet, I don’t really feel like a member of the church at times. I interact with people, but not as well in huge crowds (so many people and too noisy). It seems like some would see this as not wanting to fellowship when it’s only part of my autism. I feel like very few of my peers understand my challenges with fellowshipping. I also struggle with emotional meanings behind certain passages.

I’m scared even more when it appears that I’m alone in the fight to stick with Christianity as an autistic person.  I met two boys in a Birmingham church who are autistic, but I’ve yet to find autistic adults who are Christian. How can I be an autistic Christian if there is lack of adequate examples of such persons out there?

I believe that first step in seeing more autistic Christians (especially those who are living independently and are verbal) is to provide resources that could help them grow in the faith. The catch is that resources have to come from someone or an entity who fully understands autistic Christians’ hardships in the world. Resources could even come from a person in the autistic spectrum who been the faith for a long time (e.g., at least 2 years). Providing spiritual guidance from the verbal, independent autistic’s point of view is more beneficial than turning to a place or someone with limited/stereotypical knowledge of the condition.

Meanwhile, more Christians that are autistic should network with each other and share their testimonies to non-autistic Christians. That will inspire many people and convince of how God could work through anyone.

With those, I would hope to see news of more autistic Christians making a difference in people’s lives and less of parent’s woes with raising an autistic child in a Christian household.

(sidebar) Links related to Autistic Christians:

Autism Society (Religion and Autism): http://www.autism-society.org/living-with-autism/family-issues/religion-and-autism.html

Books and Resources on Religion, Spirituality, and Moral Development: http://www.neurodiversity.com/religion.html

Christianity and Autism Forum: http://www.aspiesforfreedom.com/showthread.php?tid=21631

James Tuttle (autism advocate, political advocate, and commentator on spiritual issues): https://www.facebook.com/pages/James-Tuttle/23053891623

Spectrum Ministries: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Spectrum-Ministires

Photo Credit: Carlos Solares/Flickr

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2012 and has been edited for clarity, has a new author bio and has as a new featured image.

Timotheus GordonBorn and raised on the south side of Chicago, Timotheus “Pharaoh” Gordon has loved the power of writing since 3rd grade when he copied love poems and read history literature in his free time. He got married to poetry in 2003 after turning in a humorous poem on his daily routine for a homework assignment. Writing, especially poetry, also helped him develop a voice as an African-American male with autism.
He is a freelance writer and blogger specializing in autism acceptance, social commentary, sports, cosplay, and comic/anime conventions. He is published in online publications such as Football.com, Creative Loafing Atlanta, and Yahoo Contributor Network. In addition, he takes event pictures at anime/comic conventions, rallies, college events, class reunions, 5K races, and church functions. Along with those two professions,  am currently an independent marketing representative, where I utilize social media and word-of-mouth to provide essential productions and show people how they can gain financial independence. Connect with him on Twitter @TimotheusGordon or his other social media outlets.

Frequently Asked Questions about IEPs

parents shaking the hand of a teacher in a classroom

By Amanda Morin, Understood.org

There’s a lot to know when your child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP). From the legal to the logistical, here’s a look at five common questions parents have about IEPs and, more importantly, some answers to help.

  1. I don’t think everybody uses IEP the same way. What exactly is an IEP?

IEP stands for an individualized education program, which is the blueprint for your child’s special education experience.  But sometimes people also use “IEP” to refer to the legal written document that that contains all the information about your child’s program. Technically, that document is an IEP plan.

People may also use IEP to refer to the team who helps puts the program into place (“she’s on my child’s IEP”) or the meetings held to review the program, (“we have an IEP this afternoon”). But those references are shorthand for “IEP team” or “IEP meeting.”

  1. I heard my child’s IEP is supposed to be standards-based. What does that mean and how do I know if it is?

Each state has standards that lay out what students are expected to learn in math, reading, science and other subjects by the end of each year. A standards-based IEP means the program aligns your child’s learning needs and goals with the academic standards for your state.

Schools haven’t always tied IEPs to grade-level standards. But a 2015 guidance letter from the U.S. Department of Education made it clear that all IEPs must be tied to state academic standards.  If your child’s IEP isn’t tied to state standards, it violates her legal right to a free and appropriate education (FAPE).

You may wonder how your child will meet grade-level standards if she’s behind. Every IEP has a few key parts:

  • Your child’s present level of performance
  • Annual goals for your child
  • Special education supports and services to help him reach the goals
  • Accommodations and modifications to help your child progress
  • Measurements for your child’s progress toward goals

In a standards-based IEP, those are all aligned with state academic standards. If, for example, your child has dyslexia, her present level of reading performance will be measured by what grade level she’s reading at.

Her annual goals will be written to meet standards for her grade. And any services, supports, and accommodations she receives are intended to get her to meet those grade-level standards. She may not reach that goal, but it’s important that her educational experience is aiming to get her there.

  1. I keep hearing about “smart goals.” What makes a goal “smart?”?

SMART isn’t referring to whether or not a goal is clever or not, although SMART goals are very well-written. SMART stands for the key components of a well-written goal:

  • Specific: This means the goal is specific in naming the skill or subject area and how your child will achieve the targeted goal.
  • Measurable: This means the goal states the way your child’s progress will be measured. That can be done using standardized tests, curriculum-based measurements or screening.
  • Attainable: This means the goal represents progress that may be ambitious, but still realistic for your child.
  • Results-oriented: This means the goal clearly lays out what your child will do to accomplish it and explains what she’ll be able to do once the goal is met.
  • Time-bound: This means the goal includes a time frame in which your child will achieve it, given appropriate supports and services. It also explains when and how often progress will be measured.
  1. We just had an IEP meeting and I feel good about the accommodations for my child, but how will I know if they’re working?

You can begin by talking to each teacher to make sure he understands the accommodations and when to use them. Ask him to give you an example of how it would look in a normal class period to see if you’re on the same page.  And check with your child to see if she knows what her accommodations are when they’ll be used and how she can access them.

If you’re not comfortable that the teachers or your child are using the accommodations appropriately (or at all!), ask that an IEP team member makes it a priority to follow up. After that, you can keep track of your child’s progress in general and special education via homework, progress reports and by how she’s acting and reacting to school. If it’s not going as well as you expected, it’s a good idea to revisit the accommodations.

  1. What do I do if I don’t agree with a decision the rest of the team makes during the meeting?

You don’t have to agree to the entire plan, but you need to make that clear in writing. In most states, there isn’t a section for you to sign and approve the IEP because the federal law doesn’t require a parent to sign. When the very first IEP is finalized, you do have to sign to provide permission to provide services, but after that, the law doesn’t require your signature.

Once the IEP plan is completed, the school will send you a prior written notice explaining what actions were taken and the decisions that were made. When you get the prior written notice, it will provide a date on which the new IEP will begin.

If you disagree with any of the services or background information, it’s best to write a letter explaining what you disagree with or the services you are declining. You may want to call another meeting to discuss the issue again. If the team still doesn’t agree, you have to decide if you want to pursue the issue through due process.

There’s a lot to learn about IEPs, and it can be tricky to track. With a better understanding of how the program works, what the IEP plan should include, an understanding of your legal rights and the school’s responsibilities, you’re off to a good start!

Photo Credit: Innovation_School/Flickr

a-morin-headshot-2Amanda Morin is a parent advocate and former teacher. She worked in classrooms and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years. Since 2007, she has been working as an education writer and, more recently, as a parent advocate to empower parents and affirm the pivotal role they play in their child’s education.
During her years as an early childhood educator, she taught kindergarten and worked with infants, toddlers and preschoolers with disabilities. She provided education and training to parents of children with disabilities and led multidisciplinary teams in developing and implementing Individual Family Service Plans.
Morin received a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Maine and special education advocacy training from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates.
She is the author of three books: The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education, The Everything Kids’ Learning Activities Book and On-the-Go Fun for Kids: More Than 250 Activities to Keep Little Ones Busy and Happy—Anytime, Anywhere!
She also writes for Understood.org.

Tech Tools to Boost Writing Skills of Students with Learning Disabilities

stack of lined paper with some drawing and sloppy writing

By Michael Yarbrough

In practice, teachers quickly learn how often students with learning difficulties (LDs) face problems related to writing skills. One of the most frequent issues is Dysgraphia, which appears when your student has difficulty with correct spelling or handwriting. Specifically, your student may spell words on paper incorrectly and mix cursive with print or uppercase with lowercase letters. Another trouble is Dyspraxia, which may cause some difficulties with movement, including the physical process of writing and printing. Another common issue is Dyslexia. This is a learning disability that leads to reading problems that can also influence writing. If your students cannot make sense of written words or recognize them, they may have Dyslexia. Fortunately, today’s schools provide special programs for students with LDs so they can develop the skill sets they need to use their strengths and overcome their challenges. Furthermore, there are special technical tools your students can freely use for boosting their writing abilities:

  1. Speech-to-Text Synthesizers. This kind of software is created for children whose oral abilities are better than handwriting. They can dictate into a microphone and see their spoken words appear as text on the computer screen. Suggest using either Dragon Speech Recognition or Dictation software to create more complicated and longer essays free of spelling mistakes. Research has shown that essays created with the help of voice recognition software are better than those written in the more traditional way. Other benefits of using the above tools include enhancing core reading abilities, better navigating skills on the computer, and increasing a sense of independence while lessening anxiety.
  2. Word Prediction Software. This type of software is especially valuable for students with Dyslexia, as this technology predicts the words students want to write after just a few characters have been typed. As a rule, there is a box with several suggestions, and the user can choose the appropriate word to be inserted into the text. Try to test word prediction software using either WordQ or Co:Writer. These tools can also be used when sitting in a classroom and taking notes during lectures, as dictating aloud would probably disturb other classmates. Statistics show that word prediction is actually able to help students improve their spelling and transcription accuracy, increasing both word fluency and the academic quality of work completed. Furthermore, students enjoy how the program suggests a wide range of options so they can select the most appropriate ones without constantly worrying about spelling mistakes. Still, the process of choosing requires careful attention as there are many confusing words and word forms, so using this software isn’t as easy as it seems to be at first. Nevertheless, this tool is really effective because in many cases it shows more significant results than voice recognition software, as it not only helps deal with problems but actually does its best to solve them!
  3. Tools for Students With Rare Disorders. In addition to the common problems of Dysgraphia, Dyspraxia, and Dyslexia, there also are some other issues that, although they occur rarely, are important to know about. Cryptomnesia is when something that was forgotten returns suddenly but is thought to be new. In other words, memory resources become a new knowledge for writers without their realizing it. In this way, writers auto-plagiarize everything they remember, whether it’s a song or a literary composition. What is most surprising is how they do it unintentionally. To prevent these situations, students with Cryptomnesia can use Unplag to check their papers for plagiarism to be sure they use their own original thoughts and unique ideas. Dysantigraphia is when students cannot copy any printed or written material. Instead, students can write this material down if it is being spoken aloud by the teacher, but as soon as they take a look at a printed version of what they’ve heard, they become incapable of copying it. Scholars presume this disorder may be related to a stroke or other brain trauma. Screencast-O-Matic is a tool that will help students conquer Dysantigraphia by turning printed material into listenable sound files.

What You Can Do Besides Using Tools

Fortunately, there is a lot of information out there from reliable sources about difficulties with writing. Lots of research by psychologists, neurophysiologists, behaviorists and other specialists has taken place, which means there are many ways to improve written expression even without leaving home. Below are some ideas that are the easiest to follow. You just have to inspire your students to use them effectively!

  • Never stop encouraging students to learn;
  • Prove that reading is FUNdamental;
  • Concentrate on effort, not result;
  • Make them focus on their studying process;
  • Inspire students to stay hungry for new knowledge;
  • Advise them to take notes on everything;
  • Have the highest regard for their writing;
  • Allow them to use keyboarding when they’re tired;
  • Evaluate their achievements according to your expectations;
  • Pride yourself on constant teaching and improving together with your students.

With tools and strategies like these, you can help put your special needs students on the pathway to academic success!

Photo Credit: Yasmeen/Flickr

About the Author:

Before he became a private teacher, Michael spent five years in the school classroom. He always was an inclusive education advocate, and still, believes that everyone should have access to good education.  Michael shares his thoughts on education, pedagogy and digital learning on his Twitter and his personal education blog Cultivating Education. Follow him, and you will not miss his new posts!

My Child Is Starting an Inclusive Preschool: Now What?

three children standing in front of a brick wall that has been painted with chalkboard paint. they are smiling and laughing.

By Nakeshia Wright

Somehow, inexplicably, the school year starts. Summer vacations were had, swimming lessons were taken, and probably too many popsicles and ice cream treats were enjoyed. Throw in a few inevitable tantrums and occasional mischief due to summer boredom, and most parents will be sending their children off to school with a relieved grin on their face. However, if you’re a parent sending your child to an early education program for the first time, you may experience more complex emotions, especially if your child has a special need.

Try not to fret; there are plenty of resources and experts out there to help make the transition as smooth as possible. Inclusive early education programs, like the Frazer Center, are a good place to start. As an Inclusion Specialist, it is my job to ensure children with disabilities and their families receive the direction and resources they need.  Still, having an inclusion professional within the program is just one of many benefits. There is more and more research available that supports the benefits of inclusion for young children with and without disabilities. Studies have shown that individualized evidence-based strategies for children with disabilities can be implemented successfully in inclusive early childhood programs, according to the U.S Department of Education.

Once you’ve found an inclusive program that you feel comfortable with, check out the list below of things you can do to ensure your child remains developmentally on track. Starting your child with a special need at an inclusive early education program can be stressful, but remember you are not alone and the benefits and resources your child receives will be a tremendous tool for his or her future learning.

  1. Start the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) and Individualized Education Program (IEP) process as early as possible. The process can be very involved and often overwhelming. Unfortunately the longer you wait, the more daunting it can become. While your child must be at least three years old to qualify for an IEP, it’s never too early to get help for potential developmental delays or learning issues. Starting an IEP/IFSP as early as possible not only ensures accommodations and supports for your child, but makes the transition from preschool to kindergarten much easier. This is particularly the case if schools in your district can not provide the resources needed for your child and other accommodations have to be arranged.
  2. Communication is crucial. Communication is important for every parent, but especially for parents of children with special needs. Most likely it’s your first go-around caring for a child with special needs. It’s not ours or the other experts you will work with. Has your child not been sleeping as much as usual? Is there a new fear to overcome? Are you confused about something on the IEP? Let us know! Not communicating upfront often leads to increased, inefficient communication down the road. It might also be useful to start a communication log. The notifications and updates you will receive about your child is significant and will only increase. Catalog them all together.
  3. Start a routine for before and after school. This only goes for older children that will be starting kindergarten shortly—infants have their own (albeit unpredictable) routine. Regular routines help kids cooperate, learn to take charge and keep a schedule. It gives them consistency, certainty, and safety. The structure at home regularly translates to good behavior at school, reducing time spent on negative feelings and distractions, allowing more time to learn and develop.
  4. Get involved. Any high-quality early education program affords plenty of opportunities for parents to stay actively involved in their child’s blossoming education. Join the parent-teacher committee, serve as “lead” parent for your child’s classroom, volunteer when asked. If your schedule is just too hectic to commit to a large time invest, at least make sure to always attend a parent-teacher conference, IEP meetings, and program-wide functions. Staying engaged is the most direct way to stay informed about upcoming events and potential policy changes. It’s where you strengthen relationships with teachers and administrators, as well as form beneficial relationships with other parents. As a parent with a child with special needs, program changes may affect your child more than a typically developing child. You are your child’s voice when decisions are being made, make sure they are heard.

Photo Credit: Frazer Center

The post was originally published on the Frazer Center blog and is used with permission.

nakeshia-wrightNakeshia Wright is an Inclusion Specialist at the Frazer Center in Atlanta, GA, one of the metro area’s only inclusive early education programs. In this role, she works closely with families, teachers, therapists, and other entities to provide the best possible experience for children with special needs. Nakeshia has worked for the Frazer Center since 2009 in various capacities including assistant teacher, lead teacher, and lead Pre-K teacher. She is reliable in using the Inclusive Classroom Profile and was named GAYC Certified Teacher of the Year in 2012. Previously, Nakeshia worked at the Muriel Humphrey Center in Woodbridge, VA (2005-2009) which was a day program for individuals with Special Needs from 6 weeks to 22 years. She began working with children with special needs in high school and has a Bachelor’s of Sciences in Communicative Sciences and Disorders from Hampton University. She’s a photographer, plays the piano and viola, sings, raps, and writes music. She also owns a t-shirt company (Be Brand Clothing) and button business (Take Notes).

 

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