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Friday, December 28, 2012

Inclusion in the Friendly Skies

KIT trainers are often traveling across the country in order to do their jobs. They see lots of opportunities to make the world more inclusive. Here is a story from KIT Trainer Anna Luther highlighting a recent positive experience on Southwest Airlines – where for one moment, everything went right. 

On Sunday, December 16, I was traveling on Southwest Airlines from Florida to North Carolina.  Sitting near the front of the plane, I had the opportunity to watch inclusion in action.  Two individuals with visual impairments boarded the plane with their service dogs.  The passengers sitting in the front row volunteered to change seats to make room for the service dogs.  The flight attendant introduced herself to the couple and asked how she could help.  Throughout the entire trip, the flight attendant checked in with the couple, but refrained from acting as a hover craft.  And as the plane was preparing to land, the flight attendant let the couple know they would be landing soon and made sure she knew which bins their luggage was in so they could de-plane easily.  One of the other passengers sitting near this couple even assisted to help these individuals make their way to baggage claim.

As I have been reflecting on what I have witnessed, my heart is warmed that a few ordinary citizens, probably without even knowing, created a supportive inclusive experience.  The flight attendant and other passengers relied on the expertise of the individuals with disabilities, empowering these individuals to say what they needed in order to be supported, instead of assuming they knew best.  My hope is that this positive experience will give that flight attendant and those citizens the confidence to create other inclusive opportunities and view individuals with disabilities as capable and independent.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Response to the tragedy, from an inclusion perspective

This is a difficult post to write. I’ve been writing it in my head for days, as I struggle to process what occurred in Newtown, Connecticut last week. I can’t stop thinking about the pain the families are experiencing right now, the heroism of the staff at Sandy Hook Elementary who put the lives of the children before their own, and also about my own friends who have small children and how vulnerable they must be feeling right now. But, below all of that something else is stirring in me. Early on in the news coverage I began to hear speculation that the shooter (I am choosing not to use his name) had a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. My first response was irritation at the media. This was reported without confirmation, and was based on young people who had gone to high school with him, and as they said, “had been told he had Asperger’s.” I was very concerned that this would lead to more stereotyping of people with Asperger’s, and showed a general misunderstanding of the diagnosis by the public at large. I felt it would do a great disservice to the autism community, and I was concerned.

Several days later the diagnosis was confirmed, and many medical experts came out saying that there is no link between autism spectrum disorders and violence. And, in fact, individuals with a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s are more likely to be victims of violence then perpetrators of it. While these statements are important, I am not sure this is enough to counterbalance the public perception as we all engage in sense-making in why a tragedy like this would occur.

While I believe that the Asperger’s diagnosis is irrelevant to the crime, and is just another descriptor of the person who committed the most terrible crime imaginable, I can’t help but listen to what his classmates and others who knew him are saying. In a 60 Minutes interview on Sunday night a young woman who sat behind him in a high school class made a statement (that I am paraphrasing), “He kept to himself and wanted to be left alone, and so we all did. I never saw him talking to anyone.” One of the misconceptions about people with autism spectrum disorders is that they “want to be alone.” I can’t help but wonder what isolation and a lack of feeling connected to your community does to a person.

So, in addition to the other changes I hope we make as a country as a result of this tragedy, including stricter gun control and better mental health services, I hope that as a field of people who care for children we add a commitment to the list. I would like us to rededicate ourselves to caring for every child in our classrooms, our programs and our communities. To look beyond a fa├žade of “not caring” or “wanting to be alone” and reach out to know every child we care for. To help them find their way in the world, and to help them make connections when they struggle to do it on their own. Some children are harder to love than others. They don’t try to please you as other children do. But they need you too. It is often those children who need you the most.

If you, or the staff at your organization feel like you need help understanding, supporting or serving children in your program, we invite you to reach out to Kids Included Together. We have a team of inclusion specialists who can help you work to make sure that every child feels a sense of belonging and connectedness to you, their peers and their community. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

So Much Work Still To Be Done

This blog has been on a little hiatus while we spent the summer hosting this awesome fundraiser, traveling around the world spreading the word of inclusion and generally getting our house in order for what is going to be a very busy fall and start to 2013. However, a news story like this one demands our attention.

You may have seen this in the news this week. A pilot who thought that his behavior would be a “flight risk” denied a 16-year old young man with Down syndrome access to a cross-country flight. This story, as conflicts usually are, is a little convoluted and confusing. How could a 16-year old boy seated in first class (his parents had paid for an upgrade at the airport kiosk) be a distraction to the pilot who is behind a sealed metal door? 

There is nothing that went well in this story. My heart aches for the boy’s mother in the video she took using her cell phone as the agent tells her they are not allowed to board the flight. She is humiliated and sobbing and her son is seen in the background sitting quietly playing with his hat. My blood boils as I read that the Port Authority escorted the family out of the gate area, as the father was quoted as saying, “like criminals”. The response from the airline left a lot to be desired and as an advocate for families like the Vanderhorsts I wish this had been handled differently from start to finish.

But, instead of lashing out at the airline I would like to look at this as a learning opportunity. It is surprising that 22 years after the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act we are still working on how to ensure that people with disabilities are guaranteed equal access to places of public accommodation, but that’s the reality. People still don’t seem to know how to interact respectfully with families who have children with disabilities and differences in behavior and communication are still not accepted. This is exactly why Kids Included Together exists, to help communities learn to include everyone in a way that is respectful and honors and appreciates the inherent differences in the human race. I truly hope that the airline will deeply reflect, and then provide its staff some much needed training on serving all families. We have reached out to the airline to offer our support and customized training for their staff. This offer stands to any airline, or any other business that would like to improve their inclusive practice. Kids will only truly be included in their community, welcomed and valued as contributing members, when we dispel stereotypes, embrace differences and are willing to face our own biases.

I think this situation is complicated by the fact that the family purchased seats in first class, and I believe that had something to do with why they were denied boarding (and it wasn’t because of the potential to distract the pilot), but even so if people were able to be more accepting of differences this situation would have had a better outcome for everyone. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Zoo Uses Video to Train Summer Staff

"How is it already June?" Have you heard people saying this lately? 2012 is almost half over already, and there seems to be a collective feeling of "boy, that was a fast six months." June is traditionally a busy month at KIT as we spend a lot of time teaching summer camp staff how to include kids of all abilities in their programs. It is very important to us that children with disabilities have access to camp, and that they create summer camp memories with their siblings and friends. We've worked with a wide variety of types of programs this past month, from museums, to city parks and recreation departments, to Boys & Girls Clubs and one of our longest affiliations, the world-famous San Diego Zoo. For the past ten years KIT has been working with the 50 summer camp educators who will reach thousands of children in their popular summer camp program. The San Diego Zoo has been very thoughtful and progressive in their approach to inclusion, and they have been an absolute delight to partner with over the past many years.

This year's San Diego Zoo training session was this past Friday and I was able to watch our Master Trainer, Nili Mathews, work with the educators. This year the Zoo had the great idea to work with the local youth theatre program to develop short videos using child actors that depicted typical summer camp challenges. At the training the educators viewed the video clips, discussed and received coaching and feedback from Nili. It was wonderful to see the Zoo educators think through each situation, and you could see their knowledge build on itself with each new situation. Video is such a great tool for learning, and this was such a creative, collaborative and inexpensive way to approach staff training.

Here are a few tips for including video in your training program:

1. Plan ahead! Line up your location, talent and crew ahead of time. As the Zoo found, this is a great opportunity for collaboration. Is there an Audio Visual group at a local high school or community college that can produce your videos? Can you work with a local after school program to use their facility or children?
2. Get permission! It is very important to get release forms from anyone appearing on camera. Also make sure that you have permission to use facilities, and bring a copy of any documentation you have about facility use on the day of the shoot (emails work).
3. Check your equipment! Batteries charged? Microphone? How's the lighting?
4. Know what you want to shoot! Don't wait until the day of the shoot to figure out what you want to capture. Kids don't have patience for that. Figure out your scenes and shots ahead of time. Keep them simple and give the kids clear direction. Shorter is better.

Inclusion is...always ready for innovation!

Sunday, June 3, 2012


What an inspiring week this has been! I am on the east coast for a couple of events that have really fueled my passion. I came to Connecticut this weekend to help Unified Theater celebrate it's 10th anniversary. If you don't know Unified, you really need to check it out. Especially if you are involved in a high school or middle school in any way. Unified Theatre promotes meaningful inclusion and student leadership through the arts. And in my whole career I do not think I have seen inclusion practiced so thoughtfully and intentionally. I attended a performance at Conard High School in West Hartford, CT on Friday night and what I saw was pure magic. Almost 200 high school students onstage together performing scenes they created and singing and dancing to both pop and Broadway songs. The magical part was seeing the joy in the kids performing and witnessing the deep relationships that had been developed between kids with and without disabilities and from all social segments of the high school population. This is a student-led process, and the kids are trained to see each other's abilities and to use unique strengths in the creation of the show. This is what made it so entertaining- to see everyone's strength emphasized. Seeing and hearing the kids spontaneously erupt in cheers for each other when they did their part well was very heart-warming. Too often we hear stories of bullying, and this was an evening of witnessing several hundred teenagers embracing their differences. If you want to learn more about Unified Theater "like" them on Facebook where you can follow the growth of this wonderful non-profit (as I said at their fundraiser last night and board meeting today- there is no reason that Unified Theatre should not be embedded in every middle and high school in the country).
In between the Unified Theater events this week I had time to drive south to Waterford, CT to Camp Harkness (beautiful place!). One of our dedicated KIT board members, Sandy Rosenberg, invited me to attend a celebration of the lifetime achievements of her aunt, Phyllis Zlotnick, who passed away in October. Phyllis was a tireless advocate for disability rights, and I was very moved by hearing of her achievements at the ceremony. She did a lot of legislative work and advocated for many changes, but it was her work on the National Council on Disability (she was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1986) and being a part of the group that crafted the Americans with Disabilities Act that she called her greatest achievement. In January of 1998 President Clinton gave her the Medal of Freedom. I felt so inspired by Phyllis' work, and also grateful to have Sandy as a board member, continuing her family's legacy of promoting inclusion and access for people with disabilities.
I wrap up my trip tomorrow in Baltimore where I will be meeting some great people who want to make sure that children in Maryland are meaningfully included in after school programs. What a nice combination of experiences to remind me of how far we have come, and also how much work there still is left to do.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Inclusion in Prime Time

It’s nice to see inclusion get some exposure on national TV! This Sunday night inclusion champion and recording artist Clay Aiken will compete in the finals of Celebrity Apprentice, playing for his charity the National Inclusion Project. While I don’t watch much TV and haven’t seen the Celebrity Apprentice, I will be tuning in to see the important cause of inclusion in the national spotlight!

I started my career at KIT right as the Bubel/Aiken Foundation (it's original name) was getting off the ground in 2003. In fact, they provided generous funding for our first national conference that same year. Since then we have collaborated on many projects, like the youth-driven I Am Norm campaign. While we go about our work a little differently, both of our organizations are committed to ensuring that all children, regardless of ability, have access to the typical activities of childhood. Congrats to Clay and the National Inclusion Project! We are very excited for you and grateful for the exposure that our cause will get thanks to you! As both of our organizations know, when kids are included together everyone benefits. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Science Museum Turns the Lens of Inquiry on Itself

How cool is my job? 

In late January I spent a delightful afternoon at San Francisco’s famous Exploratorium as part of the Mott National Conference of Statewide Afterschool Networks. I had been to the Exploratorium as a tourist in the past and always enjoyed it immensely. However, this time was different. I suddenly saw The Exploratorium as a perfect place for natural and authentic inclusion. I looked at The Tinkering Studio and imagined children with a variety of abilities in the space, and that children who may be labeled as having a disability would have a lot of abilities to share and show as they created art and science using the hands on materials. In my mind’s eye I saw children considered “typical” gaining a greater level of understanding and appreciation for their peers with autism. And I saw all kinds of children exploring future interests and possibly even career paths while enjoying the incredible exhibits at the museum. I was inspired! After the tour the staff gathered the participants in the McBean Theater for a talk-back session. I posed the question, “How do you support children with disabilities in museum activities?” I will never forget how the staff looked at me with their eyes large and their hearts open. “We aren’t sure, but we know that children with disabilities come to the museum, and their parents tell us they like it, but we want to know why it works, why it doesn’t work and what we could be doing.” Music to my ears!

This past Friday and Saturday I went back up to the museum to begin helping them get the answers to their questions. I experienced the same openness that I sensed back in January. I gave a “brown bag” talk on Friday and we discussed how the activities of the museum may support the needs of children with a variety of disabilities, and also how their unique sensory environment is challenging to children with certain types of disabilities. I gave them the basic tenets of inclusive practice, and we spent some time on how to make accommodations that would support children and adults with disabilities.

Following the brown bag session, we held a series of 30-minute sessions with staff from different departments. Representatives from volunteer management, field trips, visitor research & evaluation and exhibits came to ask questions and think through how they might make shifts in how they do their work to make it even more accessible to people of all abilities. I was incredibly impressed with the passion that was apparent in each of them. I heard about their previous efforts, like an autism family night that was a collaborative effort with another local agency, and also a lot about their upcoming move to the Piers in early 2013.
Kids and families enjoying an activity at the Open MAKE

Saturday I was back at the museum to witness their Open MAKE event that involved 90 different “makers” hosting open activities for children and families. A feature of this event was Caine’s Arcade, and there was a line into this 9 year-old's exhibit all day long.
The theme was "trash" and this seal was made all from materials washed up on the Oregon seashore. 

We always remind organizations that inclusion is a journey, not a destination. It doesn’t have a finish line that you cross. The staff at The Exploratorium seems to understand that inherently. They are using their highly-developed inquiry skills to question, “How could we be more accessible?” “What’s working here for children with autism and other disabilities, and how could we incorporate that throughout the museum?” “What challenges do people face in accessing our museum, and how could we help alleviate those challenges?”  KIT is committed to helping them explore these questions, and I am excited to see how they grow as they move to their new, larger space next year.