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Never did I dream where I would be now!

Deborah Parker, M.S.E.
2018 University of Kansas Graduate
2018 NC CEC Teacher of Excellence

As I opened a box that was delivered recently, I was very excited!  It contained my cap and gown for my December graduation with a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis in autism.  I may sound just like any other graduate …except that I have taught for 20+ years and will turn 60 in January.  Why would anyone my age go back to school when they should be planning for retirement?

Realizing just how fast my graduation from KU is approaching made me reflect on my time there. It began 5 years ago when my principal asked to speak with me about working with students with autism who were coming to our school. 

I hoped this new position would provide an opportunity to learn more about helping students develop pre-academic communication and social skills. 

I also hoped I could build strong relationships with parents.  

I couldn’t wait to begin!

I immediately fell in love with my students and their families.  Most of my students were intellectually able to learn the curriculum, they were eager to learn, and our relationships were strong.  I quickly realized, however, that I would need to incorporate specialized instruction (including adaptations and modifications) as a part of class routines.  I needed to explore the use of evidence-based practices within inclusive settings where all children are fully included.


Initially, I felt out of my depth. 

I watched videos on YouTube and read everything I could find on how to teach my students. I did a lot of soul-searching, praying, and reflecting on the past year.  I truly wanted to meet the challenge of advancing the goal of full inclusion for Pre-K children with autism.  This was what I wanted to do with my life, and I needed to return to school to learn to be more effective.  Fortunately, my husband was very supportive.

I researched various schools and decided on the University of Kansas because of their multifaceted curriculum and reputation as the number #1 public education program in the US.  I applied for their Graduate Certificate in Autism, was accepted, and began classes.  I loved the individualized feedback and communication with my instructors, learning about the most current trends, issues, and practices in the field, as well as experiencing the immediate and practical implementation of what I was learning. 

What a difference it made it my class!  My students with autism began to blossom.  They learned to follow schedules, communicate, and express the knowledge that they were in a safe and loving environment.  They began to communicate and interact with staff, students, and families through smiles, hugs, and active engagement.  As they grew, parents began asking for suggestions about how to better communicate and socialize with their students at home and in community settings.

When I completed the Graduate Certificate, I realized I wanted to continue toward my master’s degree, so I applied and was accepted into the program. Words cannot express what I have gained from being a student at the University of Kansas.  Dr. Glennda McKeithan, an instructor for several of my classes, became a mentor and friend.  She helped me to develop confidence in my knowledge and ability to teach my students and to advocate for them and their families.  I know how to assess my students’ needs, determine which of the Evidence-Based Practices would meet their individual needs, and how to collect data to measure their progress. I can interpret and elaborate on student needs/instructional practices when I speak with administrators, county staff, service providers, parents, and other educators.  Dr. Jason Travers, my advisor, has gone above and beyond in helping me to meet my graduation requirements. 

2018 Yes I Can Award
North Carolina Council for Exceptional Children

I have become more actively involved in local and national organizations such as the Council for Exceptional Children, Division on Autism and Developmental Disorders, Autism Speaks, and Professional Educators of North Carolina.  I was nominated for and won the 2018 Teaching Excellence Award, and one of my students won the 2018 Yes I CAN! Award.  I was also elected to be part of the executive boards on both state CEC organizations. I am now actively working with educators all over my state from multiple institutions of higher learning and school districts to make decisions about resources, staff development, and evaluating policies.

Deborah Parker, M.S.E and Michael Wehmeyer, Ph.D.
University of Kansas 

As I prepare to graduate from KU, I am immensely grateful for all the KU staff has helped me to accomplish. Never did I dream where I would be now.  I came to KU with little to zero belief in my abilities. I am now confident, knowledgeable, and know I can make a difference in the lives of my students and their families. I am thrilled my husband and two children will be with me as I walk down the hill and receive my graduate degree. The pride they communicate about what I have achieved gives me a feeling I cannot describe. 

University of Kansas Department of Special Education 

I am working with two colleagues on a manuscript intended for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. I will present my research at the 2019 NC CEC Annual Conference, and I am hoping to continue my education to earn a Ph.D. which will help me to learn more about my field and working with adult learners. I am inspired to help others find the passion, knowledge, and confidence I have.  All students deserve to have the best teachers!

Thank you to the Special Education Department at the University of Kansas who have developed such an effective, personalized and meaningful online program!

Unteaching and Unlearning is Intellectual!


The “apprenticeship of observation,” introduced by Dan Lortie (1975) provides a lens through which we can consider why preservice teachers (and the general public) may feel they know all they need to know about teaching and learning.  They went to school, kindergarten through 12th grade, at least, and have had numerous teachers across their educational experience.  As a result, they may enter into a teacher preparation program with the belief that they know what teachers do, why teachers do what they do, and how they, as teachers themselves, will do it better.

High quality teacher preparation programs typically prepare candidates through a mix of theory, evidence-based and best practices, and field experiences. Teacher educators and preservice teachers often struggle with the disconnect between the preparation program’s teachings and the practices and strategies preservice teachers experience in their field placements.  This is when we must also tackle “unteaching” of misunderstood or misinformed educational practices and “unlearning” of the things we think we know about what it means to be a teacher.

white board


Unteaching requires us to acknowledge some of the commonly-held beliefs and practices prevalent in schools and classrooms; as well as to challenge those practices that are problematic with evidence and applicable strategies.  For example, in early childhood teacher preparation, we are charged with unteaching shaming and punitive behavior management systems such as clip charts because these systems persist in practice.  Simultaneously, we teach the evidence about social emotional development, community building, and trauma-informed care, which are all in direct conflict with systems like clip charts.  Both are critical to future teachers’ ability to eschew traditional systems and instead implement best practices in meeting the needs of their learners, teaching the behaviors they want to see, and honoring the individual and unique needs of each child.



Unteaching is hard work but unlearning is even more challenging.  The “apprenticeship of observation” is so powerful.  Unlearning is the act of letting go of ideas, beliefs, and practices we believed to be true, effective, and valuable.  When presented with more compelling evidence for an alternative approach, we unlearn the previously held belief and replace it with a new belief.  Years of watching disruptive kids be removed from class, conforming to threats of punitive consequences (e.g., your grade drops one letter grade for late submission), and expecting school success to be measured by compliance with rules, many future teachers struggle to adopt more equitable, intentional strategies focused more on teaching than on punishment.  As I have become more intentional in implementing unteaching pedagogy in my courses and interactions with preservice as well as inservice teachers, I have become increasingly aware of the challenges we face in creating inclusive, accepting, responsive learning environments for learners and teachers.

In an attempt to “bridge the gap” (is this the most overused phrase in education?), I, along with my colleague and friend at James Madison University, Dr. Mira Williams, started a website with an intentional social media presence in an effort to make our own unteaching pedagogy and unlearning practice visible to other teacher educators, teachers, and learners.

Social Media As A Tooleducation-1580143_1280

We started by building a Facebook page for sharing blog posts and resources with a growing community of teachers.  However, on advice from a trusted marketing expert/friend, we branched into Instagram.  Do you know that there are thousands of teachers on Instagram who post about their lessons, their resources, their struggles, their wins, their processes, their thinking, and their outfits of the day?  Neither did we.  The hashtag teachersofinstagram has over 3.7 million posts as of today and the Instagram teacher leaders boast upwards of 40,000 followers.  Where are teachers going to share resources, ask for support, get new ideas?  Instagram.

Our site, @teachingisintellectual, attempts to provide bite size best practices to our small but growing community of followers.  We use apps such as Word Swag and PicLab to create visuals in order to communicate an idea or to pique interest for a click over to the blog.  We engage with the growing number of teachers we follow as well in order to contribute to the community and build relationships.  We have learned so much about what teachers want support with, where they look for solutions, and how they challenge each other on matters of unteaching and unlearning simply by following, participating, and listening.

The culture of education dominating teaching Instagram is in many ways different than what those of us who no longer teach in PK-12 environments may believe.  The #teachersofinstagram have taught us innovative classroom practices.  For example, just this weekend, a third-grade teacher we follow on Instagram posted an anchor chart she made with her students about consent.  The post has since gone viral and national news outlets such as CNN and MSNBC ran stories about her post.  Popular education Twitter accounts have tweeted about it with many prominent voices in education boosting its’ reach.  Teachers are using their social media presence to get the word out about their work.  They are telling their own stories.  We are simply listening. We then use our resources as partners to respond in ways that are useful and supportive of the unteaching and unlearning of flawed practices with a focus on replacing them with better strategies.

We aim to grow our reach in order to use our platform to inform our research but also to provide a hungry, deeply committed community of educators with the resources they are seeking to unlearn ineffective practices.  Additionally, providing preservice teachers access to teacher leaders on social media who are making their innovative, creative work visible, shows what is possible.  The #teachersofinstagram are modeling best practices in real time with real students in real classrooms.  We believe partnering with these teachers and learning from them could be a critical 21st century step in bridging the much-talked-about research to practice gap.


JRN Headshot BW

Jen Newton is an assistant professor at OHIO University.  Dr. Newton’s research interests include strengths-based approaches to families, early childhood inclusion, and inclusive teacher preparation.  She regularly presents locally, regionally, and nationally on a range of inclusive educational topics.

She served as an early interventionist and an inclusive prekindergarten teacher prior to pursuing doctoral studies.  Dr. Newton earned her doctorate in special education from the University of Kansas and spent four years as an assistant professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., then three years at Saint Louis University before finding her home at Ohio University.  Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @teachingisintellectual and her website www.teachingisintellectual.com




Mary Morningstar: Until we meet again!


We celebrate our friend and colleague, Mary Morningstar as she moves to her next adventure in Oregon. Mary, you will be missed by your colleagues and students! We found some pictures and quotes to share with you.MM

A few quotes!

Dr. Gary Clark, Professor Emeritus, University of Kansas
Mary and I have been friends and collaborative colleagues since her arrival here to begin her doctoral studies and direct the Full Citizenship project. Our mutual interests in transition programs and services gave KU a unique situation of not one but two people committed to this area. I was always impressed with her creative ideas, her grant-writing skills, and her collaborative approach with colleagues and students to stay engaged and focussed on her goals and career passion. How she did this while juggling family and professional demands was remarkable. She left a clear legacy here and will be sorely missed.
Dr. Ryan Kellums, Assistant Professor, Brigham Young University
When I first started working with Mary, I was a high school History teacher. I happened to sit next to one of her doc students at a conference—and I didn’t know then, but that casual meeting would prove to be a pivotal moment in both my personal and professional life. Spurred by Mary’s encouragement, I applied for the doctoral program in Special Education at the University of Kansas. I was accepted and Mary was my adviser. Throughout the course of my PhD program and dissertation research, Mary spent hundreds of hours teaching and mentoring me. As I started my career, Mary not only gave me access to her vast knowledge but she also introduced me to her professional network.  As I have progressed in my career, Mary has become more than a mentor and doctoral advisor—she is a valued and trusted colleague and friend. Much of the success that I’ve experienced as a professional can be traced back to Mary’s patient guidance. I feel privileged to have been counseled at her hands and wish her the best in all future endeavors.
Sarah Hannon, BSE
Although I have only worked with Dr. Morningstar for about one year, the insight, the instruction, and the lessons I learned from her are invaluable. I will truly miss her when she is gone and will keep working on inclusive education for the students I serve with her values and methods in mind. I hope to stay in touch and to always keep learning from Dr. Morningstar. Thank you for everything!
Jeff Harkin, Principal, LMCMS
Dr. Morningstar has been a great support to our staff and students at LMCMS.  She has generously contributed her time by conducting professional development and collecting observation data.  She has gained the trust and respect in working closely with our 7th core academic team and has enhanced our inclusive practices.
Lauren Johnson, HS Teacher
Mary is without a doubt the craziest teacher I’ve ever had! She beautifully sets high standards for herself and others around her while showing us grace through her own mistakes and flexibility. What an amazing person to learn from and grow with! Unforgettable!
Yilke Pacarizi
Dear Mary, Having you as a supervisor during my stay at KU has been the highlight of my experience there. Thank you for the trust, the guidance, the motivation you’ve given me to fight for inclusive education, for all the car rides and for making me feel at home. I couldn’t have asked for a better person and expert to guide me and support me. While the program at KU has been only the beginning of my journey to fight for the provision of inclusive education, I am honored and lucky to have started this journey with you. I hope you continue to leave a mark in people’s lives as you did in mine.

Hugs from Kosovo


 With students and colleagues at the Thanksgiving Celebration!



Always with a smile and sense of humor! Mary and colleagues!


We won’t say goodbye…we wish you Godspeed*!

*”good fortune; success (used as a wish to a person starting on a journey, a new venture)” Dictionary.com 



Come Together: Education Equity, Choice, and the Need for Small Schools 2.0

Stuart Rhoden, Ph.D.

Arizona State Universitysrhoden1

In 1969 when the Beatles were on the verge of breaking up, they, or rather more specifically John Lennon, wrote a song titled Come Together.While there are many songs that articulate ththe concept of finding common ground, this song has always stuck out to me because of the back story that was taking place while it was being written. Even in the midst of tremendous conflict, Come Together from the brilliant Abbey Road album demonstrated the genius of the most influential band in the world. If the Beatles could come together during that time of extreme conflict to create beautiful music, why can’t we in public education get along amidst similar factions and struggles?

It seems that these days society prefers to remain in what is colloquially referred to as “silos” or “bubbles” in which the preponderance of a particular cluster of people or institutions who inhabit said space generally all agree on a particular philosophy. School choice folks associate with school choice folks.  “Progressive educators” match up with other “progressive educators,” and so on. The complexity however in this analogy beyond silos is that the very terms we use to define said silos are now being co-opted by others to mean something entirely different. None the less, despite the definitional conflicts, very few individuals or groups attempt to cross boundaries, or more



importantly try to build bridges.  You are either with us or against us, whoever the us is.

One of the most contentious areas where there is a strong need to build bridges is the division between those who support “traditional neighborhood public schools” versus those who advocate for “charter schools.”

Charter schools have been defined as schools that are created by a group of individuals, or a charter management organization to provide an alternative to traditional schools. While many charters are in urban areas, charters exist in many districts in every state in the country. Let me be clear, some conflate or confuse the discussion with charters with the discussion surrounding vouchers. Vouchers are defined as a state monetary subsidy that helps parents pay a certain amount for their child’s education. Generally, that voucher is worth around $5000 or so depending on the state.  A quick cursory examination of independent or parochial or religious schools can discern that most of their yearly cost, even for pre-K, is in excess of $10-20,000 per year.  Thus, vouchers at best pay for only 50% of the overall cost of attending these types of schools.

Separate from the voucher debate, charter schools are supposed to be “free” public schools. Their organizational structures can include non-profits, charter management organizations or even “for-profit” companies.  And while they are free to attend, there is generally some cost associated with attending a charter school.  For example, at some charters, full-day kindergarten is not subsidized by many states, and as such, parents have to pay for afternoon school care.  Other costs could include after school programs, sports, extra-curricular/enrichment (chess, STEM, robotics, dance, etc.).  As such, many contend that charters are a slippery slope towards the “privatization of public education.”

However, there is an alternative.

At least since the 1990s, there has been a movement within large comprehensive high schools (and some middle schools), to create “small schools” or “schools within schools.” Just as charter schools were created to be incubators of innovation and best practices, small schools were created to do similar work within the confines of a larger comprehensive district run school. The goal for small schools was to provide not just innovation within the larger school, but to create learning communities or academies that were focused on specific areas of academic interest (e.g., arts, STEM, technology, business, social justice, etc.). These smaller communities were also designed to create a level of autonomy at the school site level and place ownership on teachers to become leaders within the school (Dingerson et al., 2008).

As a young educator who wanted to transition into the classroom from working with students in after school programs, I moved to Los Angeles to become a teacher in South Central Los Angeles. In the school where I started as a long-term sub and concluded, in four short years, as a Small School Coordinator, we were an incubator of change – rapid, constant, and at times divisive change.  In my four years, we went from theme-based academies, to small learning communities to eventually leaving the control of Los Angeles Unified School District and becoming a consortium of charter schools on a single 23-acre campus run by a charter management organization, Green Dot. Choosing to “leave” the district was seen as a drastic step by many, but the majority of the teachers voted for this change.  What was unfortunate was that there were many opportunities for the transition to a charter to not occur. Time was not given to let academies, or even small learning communities be able to marinate and take root within the school community. As such, the teachers, and many parents believed that what was best for the students and community was a fresh start with new management and hopefully new outcomes.

Ten years after the transition to Green Dot, we have seen the benefits of the teachers’ difficult choice to become a charter school. The question that will forever linger is what if we, as a school and a community, were given more time to make the small schools in this large comprehensive, persistently dangerous, low performing high school work?  The infighting among teachers as well as disagreements with the district, as to what small schools should look like within our school, was what ultimately led to the exodus from LAUSD all together.

The teacher factions within the school could not convince one another that meaningful, long-term change meant doing something significantly different than what had previously been attempted to achieve more positive academic outcomes for our students. Our skeptical colleaguesmall schools would be academically and socially beneficial for all our students – even at the most persistently low performing school in the district. In addition to our skeptical colleagues, we were not able to sway the union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), that we were willing to adjust our contractually obligated number of hours in the day to obtain a greater level of actual autonomy.  We were not able to quickly alert those skeptical colleagues to the preponderance of research that indicates smaller is better, even to those who had visited excellent examples of small schools in New York, and other parts of California. In short, we were unable to make change happen because the vocal, powerful minority did not believe in the power of a small group of dedicated teachers and students who saw a different way of educating youth in an urban environment.

photo of woman teaching

Photo by nappy on Pexels.com

Perhaps the biggest impediment to skeptical educators “buying into” the small schools movement, not just at our school, but across the country was the millions of dollars being spent towards small school efforts by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Strauss, 2014).  Gates and his wife were insistent that the comprehensive “factory” model of public education was not only antiquated, it did not prepare students for the 21stcentury work force (Gates, 2005). People were then, and still are, skeptical of Gates and his intentions when it comes to public education.

Regardless of Gates’ prior support of small schools, it is well past time that we revisit this educational innovation again before we really do “lose” more of our public schools to charter conversions. In order for us to attract and maintain middle class parents and continue to have schools that are inclusive and representative of society as a whole, we need to revisit the concept of small schools within large comprehensive schools and school districts.  Without this change, we will continue to lose ground, not to mention teachers and students, to innovative schools who do not have the same pedagogical constraints as many traditional, comprehensive neighborhood schools.

Parts of this blog were excerpted from Rhoden, S.(2017) Small Learning Communities (SLCs) and the Importance of Listening. In Kent, A.M. & Green, A.M. (Eds.), Examining Best Practices in Mentoring Public School Educators throughout the Professional Journey. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Reflections of the 2017 Cohort: Challenge, Perseverance, Success!

The 2017 Cohort members were asked to provide a word that summed up their experience, a few sentences and a symbolic picture!

William Proffitt

Word: Exploratory

I am so thrilled and so privileged to be completing my Ph.D. in Special Education at the University of Kansas. This first year experience has assured me that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, even though I could have never predicted I would be here. I am grateful for the support and knowledge of my cohort, other cohorts, and my professors. The copious amounts of reading and discussion have positively influenced my thinking and broadened my understanding of the world.


Kayla Nott

Word: Strengthening

This year I’ve learned how to navigate new aspects of academia I never knew existed. Through obstacles and challenges, I’ve become stronger as a writer, researcher, speaker, and advocate. I have also become humbled in recognizing that I still have such a long way to go.  The connections I have built this year are important, as the KU community is full of powerful allies I am proud to call my friends and colleagues. These relationships empower me today and will certainly be lasting into all of our futures, regardless of where our paths may fork.

Chelsea Waters

Word: IterativeMy first year at KU has been equally challenging and rewarding. With the support of my cats and family, I am beginning to embrace the iterative process of reading, learning, and writing. I am looking forward to the next three years at KU!

Bryan A. Simmons

Word: Tenacious

My inaugural year has been nothing short of overwhelming and the experiences I have undertaken this year have pushed me beyond my limits, shaping my relentless behavior through each contingency along the way. I have been able to persevere particularly with the encouragement of my supportive colleagues and the faculty. I am eternally grateful for my experiences this year and I am thrilled to see what the next several years here at KU hold in store for me. Rock Chalk!


Zijie Ma

Word: Challenging, Memorable

ZijeI am so grateful for all the support from my advisor, other faculties, and fellow students that helped me transition into the profession. Many of my “unknown unknowns” of the field turned into “known unknowns”. I become more aware of my strength, weakness, and room for improvement. I wish to keep growing and enjoy the moment.

Adam Carreon

Word: Direction

This year has forced me to take my many thoughts and find them a home. Excellent collaboration with my fellow students, adviser, and other faculty members have brought some of my ideas to life. It is amazing what I have learned thus far and I look forward to where the next chapter on this journey leads.

Chris Wilt

Word: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious

“Even though the workload appeared daunting and atrocious.                       

Once I studied long enough, my vocab became precocious.

The knowledge that I gained made my mind ferocious.

My first year in the program was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!”

Sohyun Yang

Word: CollaborationSoyyun

 I was able to self-reflect on the purpose of my study and learn how to organize my thoughts. Most of all, I learned how important collaborating with my cohort is. My colleagues have inspired me every time I communicated with them, and those priceless engagements helped me to grow in this academic field.



Work Without Limits: My daughter, Noelle, finding herself in her work

Scott Borchardt, and his wife, Julie,

scott borchardtgraduates and their son, Nick, will attend KU this Fall.  


Our daughter, Noelle, is on the cusp of adulthood. She’s an engaging 21-year-old with Down Syndrome, who is excited about what the future holds. We’ve helped her develop a vision of the life she wants to lead and employment is an important part of it. Why? A job will provide structure, purpose, and fulfillment to her life. It will help define her identity, influencing how she sees herself in the community and how the community sees her. How will this happen? Through the opportunities that employment provides for relationships, achievement and community inclusion.

Noelle Borchardt works as an intern at the Arc of Massachusetts Transition Conference 

Relationships – Life is more fun with friends! Young adults with disabilities can face challenges building and maintaining friendships. To avoid social isolation, they need opportunities to build and sustain meaningful relationships. The workplace can provide the types of opportunities for social interaction that can help build friendships. Noelle has experienced this in her volunteer role at a local nursing home. She has used her wit and charm to connect with patients in ways that others have not, bringing happiness to them and their families. The staff have embraced her too, surprising her last month with a birthday cake and delivering a collective smile!

Achievement – Employment provides opportunities for achievement, and achievement provides opportunities for fulfillment. A job can present daily opportunities for task completion and skill development; helping individuals with disabilities build their identity. Noelle exudes pride when she completes tasks and masters skills. You can’t wipe the smile off her face when we enter the local restaurant where she interns. She excitedly explains her role at the restaurant and introduces us to her manager. The impact of her workplace achievements are self-evident.

Noelle practices her elevator pitch during a PwC sponsored session on job seeking skills.

Noelle practices her elevator pitch during a PwC sponsored session on job seeking skills.

Community Inclusion – If you are not present in the community, are you really part of the community? Too often individuals with disabilities lack employment opportunities in their local communities. The benefits of working near home are obvious – reduced commuting times, familiar settings, and, most importantly, the opportunity to be seen. Being seen allows one to experience the benefits of the community and interact with neighbors, friends, teachers, and family. Noelle loves being seen! Seeing acquaintances at local stores, restaurants, and other community settings can be the highlight of her day. Having these opportunities at work would have a meaningful impact on her life.

The impact of employment extends beyond the traditional wage for services model of an employer/employee relationship. A job often influences an individual’s identity – how they see themselves and how others see them. This is especially true for individuals with disabilities. As Noelle begins to search for jobs in earnest, our focus will be on helping her find a position that provides opportunities for relationships, achievement, and community inclusion.

Employment for individuals with disabilities should provide opportunities for relationships, achievement and community inclusion.

If you are a person with a disability seeking inclusive employment or an employer seeking diverse candidates sign up to Work Without Limits Job Board

If you are an employer seeking great talent such as Noelle, join our Massachusetts Business Leadership Network (MABLN) to gain access to all WWL has to offer!



Founded in 2008, Work Without Limits is a network of engaged employers and innovative, collaborative partners whose shared mission is to increase the employment rate of people with disabilities. Our vision is the employment rate of people with disabilities is equal to people without disabilities.  Work Without Limits programs and services are geared to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities who are seeking jobs, businesses that actively recruit people with disabilities, and the employment providers that serve individuals with disabilities. 

WWL Staff

We are grateful to Scott Borchardt and and Work Without Limits for contributing this blog originally published at http://www.workwithoutlimits.org/blog?page=2

Strollin’ with Nolan

By Sean Joseph Smith

Nolan and I were asked to write this blog to share a little about Nolan and a local social media hit, Strollin’ with Nolan. Strollin’ with Nolan began as a series of short videos that Nolan and Brad Stoll–Lawrence High School Baseball Coach and Adaptive Physical Education (APE) teacher– took at various locations around the school. Brad posted each video on the Chesty Lions Twitter Feed.


It took only a couple of Strollin’ Tweets and the series began to receive tremendous feedback with followers wanting more. Brad started to receive text messages if he happened to skip a regular stream of installments!

nolan and brad

Nolan and his APE and Baseball Coach, Brad Stoll at Lawrence High School, Lawrence, KS.

Before long, the posts grew with a regular following. Brad’s posts garnered likes from all over with the LHS Baseball twitter feed receiving more attention than the average tweet. Overall, the videos were a hit, Brad and Nolan have shared a number of stories over the years, and with him being part of the baseball team (Baseball Manager), the videos have fostered a more supportive environment as a member of the team.

Nolan bringing the HEAT!

As I reflected on this blog though and the story to share about Strollin’ with Nolan, I kept coming back to the fact that the videos go beyond a simple social media post. You see, video has played an important part in Nolan’s life and it represents so much in Nolan’s educational experience. Now, I am not talking so much about the technology tool that video can and often represents. Yes, video is cool and video modeling and similar interventions are effective. But for Nolan, video has offered meaningful entry into the general education classroom, the curriculum, and the overall expectations. Let me explain.

sean and nolan

“Nolan and I”

When Nolan transitioned from 3-5 services to the early primary grades, inclusion wasn’t a slam dunk. Instead, extensive time in a resource room or para led instruction was recommended if not required. Through a number of discussions, pre-planning, and working with some excellent educators, Nolan received the supports needed to make general education inclusion for grades K-2 work. This involved regular meetings with his general and special education teachers. My wife and I also spent a fair amount of time in the general education classroom volunteering. Being there provided a chance to see Nolan in action, understand the class expectations, assist the teachers (thereby developing a relationship with him/her), and get to know his peers. During evenings and weekends, we pre-taught some of the major concepts and worked to prepare Nolan for the next day or week. Yes, a team approach during a time when schools are often open to including students with an intellectual disability in the general education classroom, is needed.

With the elementary grades upon us, the team approach continued to be critical. Yet, expectations grew. For a limited reader who had difficulty in writing, school was problematic for Nolan. The pressure to spend more time in the resources room and less time with typically developing peers mounted. We were being reminded that Nolan was an outlier and the services we were advocating for, the decisions for placement, and the supports that were needed went beyond typical services. Yet, everything we sought aligned with the provisions to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and so we continued to advocate.

By 3rd grade, our advocacy centered around technology. Technology to provide access to content, tools to demonstrate what he knew, and technology to make the learning experience more effective as well as efficient, particularly when you considered the brief school day and the increasingly shorter school year. In the end, applications like word prediction, graphic organizers, digital books (with text-to-speech support), and of course, video made a HUGE difference in Nolan’s educational experience. For example, word prediction allowed him to type in a letter and receive a list of words, he could then listen to the words and determine which would be best for a sentence. The other technologies were helpful but video was the equalizer. Video was used to create social stories, starring Nolan and his classmates, where he would illustrate the appropriate behavioral and social interactions expected in the classroom, hallway, cafeteria, and playgrounds. In place of a class presentation, Nolan created videos where additional time, practice, and editing allowed him to convey what he wanted to share. By the time he transitioned to middle school, videos were part of most every school day.

nolan and ricki

Nolan connecting with a true celebrity at the National Down syndrome Congress Annual Convention, Ricki Sabai.

Like any transition, moving to Middle School proved to be a challenge. Though we planned ahead, a number of the teachers weren’t sure what to make of Nolan. Again, there was a special room for the Nolans of the world. Inclusion meant gym, a few electives, and lunch. It certainly didn’t include all academic subjects, band, theater, and other electives. Fortunately, we had an accomplished videographer. With no time for oral reports or class presentations, Nolan was expected to complete the worksheet or related written assignment. Within three weeks, teachers questioned his placement and ability. Realizing failure meant segregation, Nolan put together a brief video presentation on the early American explorers. He sent the video via email on a Friday and by Tuesday his social studies teacher was singing his praises. She went from a primary skeptic to his number one advocate. For the remainder of his middle school years, the separate room was not mentioned again.

nolan and kate

Nolan as keynote speaker at Rhinestones & Rodeo Art Auction and Dance with Kate Dougherty.  This event hosted by Down Country, its biggest fundraiser of the year.Down Country helps raise awareness and help individuals with disabilities.

By High School, Lawrence Public Schools had adopted a blended learning instructional model. Video was commonplace as a means to represent ideas and support the student in demonstrating what they knew.  In other words, Nolan and his video projects were cool! They had also come full circle. While Brad Stoll was adding more and more Strollin’ with Nolan videos, Nolan was beginning to create his own. As a journalism student, he pitched the idea of creating a series of Strollin’ with Nolan interviews for the Yearbook/Journalism website. He would invite staff or students to be interviewed, develop the questions, storyboard the interview, conduct the interview, and the edit the production in order to share with others. His first featured a para he liked to see:

Strollin with Nolan Episode 1

Soon, he was developing audio and video episodes where he continued to interview members of the Lawrence High School community which would be featured on the LHS Budget Online,

nolan and lhs kids

Nolan and his fellow classmates Emceeing Pack the House (for Winter Sports) at Lawrence High School. Inclusion at work with thanks to the STUCO Advisor (Mrs. Lauxman) and his peers who are accepting, welcoming, and empowering. We are blessed and Thankful!

Today, Strollin’ with Nolan continues! Strollin’ with Nolan Interview.

Brad and Nolan post periodic updates on the LHS Baseball Twitter feed and Nolan develops material for the LHS Budget Online. But it extends beyond the social media. Nolan’s videos require a level of organization, idea generation, scripting, and overall storyboarding – a process he leads. The video requires speech fluency and effective articulation. Where else then to receive speech and language support from his Speech and Language Pathologist? She is with him twice a week working with the script and practicing to ensure competency and independence.

smith familiy

A labor of love for Nolan that serves as a tool for meaningful access to the general education classroom, social inclusion, and school notoriety where Coach Stoll often refers to Nolan as the Mayor of Lawrence.  Why?  Everyone seems to know Nolan.



We Are All Emotional Intersectional Beings: A Necessary Ingredient for Affective Intersectional Inclusion for ALL

Co-Lead Authors:  David I. Hernández-Saca & Sarah Salinas


What do we all have in common, yet at the same time experience qualitatively differently? We all experience a range of positive, negative and in-between emotions as we live our daily lives as human beings with multiple and intersectional identities (Crenshaw, 1991). Having multiple and intersectional identities with a range of emotionality, are two sides of the same coin. By intersectional we mean that a person can embody and experience cultural practices, such as reading out loud in a classroom or participating in an Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting for their child, differently, given their multiple identities. For example, an African American woman will experience cultural practices differently than an African American man or an emergent bilingual[1] who also happens to be Mexican. Dominant institutionalized narratives about historically and continually marginalized youth at their intersections, particularly the intersections of race and ability, persist to this day leading to misunderstandings (Hall, 1997; West, 1993).

See https://www.facebook.com/events/919051818230562/

This positioning of marginality existed in institutions such as the courts through single dimensional recognition of individual’s rights and personhood which leads to social patterns and practices of segregation based on gender, language, racial/ethnic, ability, and class differences (Crenshaw, 1989). In other words, our identities might include being a mother, father, student, sister, teacher, husband, partner, paraprofessional, special educator, general educator, and/or student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a Specific Learning Disability such as Dyslexia, Autism, Down Syndrome, or Emotional Behavioral Disorder. However, we are not only these, but have other identities that make us vulnerable to the perceptions that societies and cultures have inherited due to these past histories. Given these vulnerabilities, oppression and marginalization exist in multiple, simultaneous ways. An intersectional understanding of folks’ identities would not allow us to forget this.


Frierian philosophy directs us to recognize the full humanity of all persons which includes aspects of affect and emotionality, as well as the individually unique positionality and experiences shaped by our individual identities and intersectional lives. Some of these emotions might include anger, sadness, frustration, irritation, indignation, powerless, joy, disappointment, love, pride, and hope. We might experience more than one of these emotions at a time. Our emotions, feelings and affects and our intersectional identities, within educational contexts and cultures may, given our culture-less[2] and identity-less dominant perceptions, be unacknowledged (Artiles, King-Thorius, Bal, Waitoller, Neal, & Hernández-Saca, 2011; Artiles, 2017, October 19; Hernández-Saca, 2017). It is important to acknowledge and act in ways that respect such complexity and lived experiences particularly within the context of education.


Literature on parent-school relationships documents how families from historically marginalized communities continue to feel alienated from the bureaucracies associated with schools (Harry, Allen, & McLaughlin, 1995; Trainor, 2010), as do their children. Specifically, consider the following key findings about how many school and transition personnel often fail to engage with culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) families and youth with disabilities, by Greene (2011). This study finds that they often–

  1. Do not possess critical knowledge and skills related to the multiple dimensions of cultural and linguistic diversity (CLD);
  2. Do not respect CLD parents and youth with disabilities involved in the transition process;
  3. Do not acknowledge the hopes and dreams for the future held by CLD families and youth with disabilities;
  4. Do not engage in culturally responsive collaboration with CLD families and youth with disabilities in a way that makes them feel valued, listened to, and respected during the transition planning process. (p.118-119)


Similar patterns of intersectional marginalization have been documented at different grade levels. Gallo (2017) conducted a multi-year ethnographic study and documented the ways in which teachers enacted gender, racial, and immigration bias towards Mexican immigrant fathers of elementary age children in Pennsylvania. Gallo (2017) observed the increased marginalization of Mexican immigrant fathers, whose presence engendered greater suspension and surveillance in school and educational settings. Manifestations of this, she noted, often took the form of being ignored at parent-teacher conferences, and through teacher discourse about their parental engagement in language-building and literacy activities with their own children,  as subversive and detrimental to academic development (Gallo, 2017).


One explanation for this might be the deficit-thinking dominant in society about CLD youth at their intersections and their families. This deficit-thinking in turn becomes lies that circulate as “true” within society, communities, schools and individual minds about CLD youth and their families. According to sociologists, these lies are social constructions and stereotypes about particular individuals based on their membership in a particular identity group (Ainlay, Becker, & Coleman, 1986).  We have come to understand the traditional memberships (race, gender, sexual orientation, social class) as “identity badges” (Artiles, 2015). However, from a cultural historical approach to human development and activity, we can also see that professional, cultural, and other types of roles carry with them stereotypical residues, which, in light of the histories of violence against such groups, create vulnerability to stereotypes about who and how capable they are. Ginsberg, Kamat, Raghu, and Weaver (1995) pointed out the pervasive, yet public myth that teaching is an apolitical activity. This predicament makes it imperative to remind ourselves that we are all human[s] who experience the full range of negative, positive and in-between emotions, and that for too long our educational and broader culture has used these emotions as a mechanism of exclusion as opposed to inclusion.


How we critically feel and think about who counts within a community is a deeply ingrained and learned phenomena that has the potential to either humanize or dehumanize, or at worst, create the other (Said, 1978).  In creating the other, we construct an image of that person in our own way, a way that is deeply false to who they are and disconnected from reality and humanity (Powell, 2012).  Since building relationships involves emotionality, and relationships are central to education, we argue that attention to how we build relationships is imperative for quality teacher education, special and general education policy, and practice.  One way of accomplishing this feat involves the study of emotionality and affect in teacher learning about social justice issues for theory, research, and practice. We care deeply about students with dis/abilities[3] at their intersections and their families and believe their human development and well-being is necessary to create an inclusive psychology, school, and world for ALL.


Flight by multimedia Los Angeles artist, Aaron Morse. Sourced from his website here.

Because of our own unique intersectional identities within the system of education and society, we each experience qualitatively different lives. I (first author) am Latino of mixed ethnicity, of El Salvadorean and Palestinian descent, gay, and labeled with an auditory learning disability. I (second author) identify as a Mexican-American woman, Texas native, with a health impairment that affects the way I structure and access school and work environments.  However, what we both have in common is: 1) our dehumanizing experiences within the educational system that hurt us and our opportunities to learn; and 2) our passion for educational equity for all that centers the role of unconditional and radical love (Fromm, 1956). In our view, unconditional and radical love has the potential to re-envision educational policy and praxis—the coupling of critical thinking and action—for historically and continually marginalized youth with dis/abilities at their intersections and emotional states[4].


Image of Michael Brown (RIP), 18-year old unarmed African-American youth shot and killed in Ferguson, MO by police officer, Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. By Rin Jonson for Hyperallergic.


As a fairly new teacher educator I, David, have come to understand my role in the last year and a half as listening to my pre-service teachers’ fears, hopes, passions, dreams, and witnessing how they make sense of their developing understanding of critical educational equity issues. These issues include: White Supremacy, whiteness, cultural diversity, disproportionality (the over or under representation of students of color and minority students in special education compared to their white counterparts), special and general education law, the history of deinstitutionalization for people with dis/abilities in the U.S., questions related to whether special education and general education should merge, collaboration between special and general educators, the importance of intersectionality for serving historically and continually marginalized youth and their families, and other critical issues in special and general education.

All of these critical issues in special and general education have legal precedent and it is of critical importance for new teachers, at their intersections, to also understand how their future students and their families are qualitatively differently situated within the system. The legal precedent includes federal special education laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (P.L. 108-446), and federal general education laws such Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) (P.L. 89-10), later renamed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) (P.L. 107-110) and more recently Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) (P.L. 114-95).


Developing a critical consciousness of such issues beyond the technical dimensions of teaching and learning is a central goal of the courses I teach in teacher preparation. The two courses are 1) special education law, assistive technology, and advocacy and 2) transition planning and programming for students with disabilities at their intersections. Developing a critical consciousness includes creating new knowledge that will help students build skills and dispositions as agents within the system about the technical dimensions of teaching and learning but also about social justice and philosophical aspects. These include not only issues of oppression as their students are evolving as human beings, for example, but also who they are and are becoming as teachers, along with them.


We are also reminded by scholars like Tuck and Yang (2014) that researchers have a moral obligation to move beyond the “collec[tion] of stories of pain and humiliation in the lives of those being researched for commodifications” (p.223). Adhering to this principle we seek to create a space for general and special education teacher practitioners, education researchers, and students with dis/abilities at their intersections, and parents, to reconcile the existing tensions and intersections we see in our relationships with students with dis/abilities at their intersections and education systems. As a necessary first step to unpacking these beliefs, we recognize two implicit tensions which shape how teachers, students with dis/abilities at their intersections and parents from historically and continually marginalized populations interact in educational spaces.  These are special education IEP committee meetings, and the communication and advocacy efforts of parents within schools on behalf of their students.

First we call for an examination of the explicit and implicit values, assumptions, and perspectives embedded in educational policy at large, specifically policies of special education. By this we mean we want to start more conversations about the connotations, denotations, and expectations associated with the rights, responsibilities and entitlements of school districts, students with dis/abilities at their intersections, and their parents. While it is beyond the scope of this blog to trace the historical shifts and opinions of policy makers, judges, and public opinion towards the protection of the educational and civil rights of students with dis/abilities at their intersections and responsibilities of their parents to protect these rights over time, we do note the shift over time that has increasingly placed responsibility on students with dis/abilities at their intersections and parents to protect their rights (Turnbull, 2005).

Second, we acknowledge that the material realities in which we find ourselves as humans are continuously shaped by the visible and invisible forces of capitalism and class as well as capital (Bourdieu, 1986) derived from our identities and backgrounds that include economic capital (class background), social capital (educational attainment and other status markers), and society’s labels based on singular categories of race/ethnicity, class, gender, etc. All of these intersect and create multiple forms of oppression and marginalization within educational contexts which are meant to provide access, participation, and positive outcomes and capital in the first place. The question that emerges from these two points is, what concrete steps we can take to change how we as teachers, students, and parents interact and work together in educational spaces.

Though not a final, or fully developed answer (if even one exists) we suggest that teachers, mentors, and all persons must challenge themselves to take up two mind-and-heartsets that will create repositioning of power, equity, and inclusive collaboration in this work:

  1. Consider equally, and perhaps foreground our treatment and relationships with others in a way that positions the person before the disability label[5] and the policy rather than the standard (or historical) practices of placing the student’s disability before a notion of students as an individual human being; and
  2. Work to intentionally operate from a value-neutral position[6] in which we withhold judgement and check our biases about those individuals with whom we work (Fitzpatrick, Sanders, & Worthen, 2011), and use a lens of empowerment evaluation centered on 10 core principles that include: “Improvement, Community ownership, Inclusion, Democratic participation, Social Justice, Community Knowledge, Evidence-based strategies, Capacity Building (we add in others/persons), Organizational learning, and Accountability” (Fetterman & Wanderson, 2004. p.30).

With these objectives in mind-and-heart we hope to begin creating space in communities about the potential for re-shaping how we work together towards both internal and external inclusion for ALL. We do want to point out, however, that given the status quo and the deep asymmetrical legacies of power-relations embedded within U.S. education, we also encourage the readers to continue to question what counts as “evidence” within positivist structures (Heshusius & Ballard, 1996) that attempt to “prescribe” “evidence-based” practices as “universal.”  Asking who benefits and who doesn’t and other questions of power, privilege, representation, and difference are not asked in assessing “strategies” or in other words “scripts” for human interactions within learning and teaching contexts. These “scripts” we submit further construct and impede authenticity, love and justice, and lead to further dehumanization and hence colonization. We believe this alternative mind-and-heart paradigm, as a way of being, doing, feeling and seeing, can contribute to a generative language and emotionality that humanizes and can work toward educational equity for ALL.


[1] We chose to use the term emergent bilingual instead of English Language Learner (ELL) given that ELL centers the power of English, and reproduces the hegemony of English, while the former term acknowledges not a deficit view or assumption of individuals learning another language which happens to be English and denotes a positive and robust repertoires of linguistic practices that the language learner can engage in learning beyond English.

[2] We chose to use the term culture-less and identity-less as opposed to “color-blind,” given that the latter is a species of ableist language since it connotes “blindness” as a deficit. In addition, these two words emphasize the role of culture and identity in all human activity, when often times these two words are only associated to particular ethnic groups such as African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Indigenous groups. When in fact, those at the center of power in the U.S., such as White, cisgendered, abled-psychoemotional and bodied, upper-class, English-only speaking, and those who embody other hegemonic identities, also have culture, but they might not be aware of it given that they are the center of power and these identities have become normalized and hence are at the center of the historical assimilationist project working to and through people who embody such positionalities and hence it is difficult to be introspective as a culture or an individual when you don’t question your culture or the role of power in your identities that are privileged within the larger social imaginary of what counts to be human.

[3] Given our Disability Studies in Education (DSE) dispositions, we add a dash to the term, “disabilities,” to underscore the fact our belief that people with dis/abilities have both abilities and impairments and in given our belief in the social model of disability we see dis/ability as an identity marker to be proud of, as opposed to something to diagnosis and remediate. The latter would be the medical model of disability.

[4] By emotional states, we don’t purely take a psychological stance on emotion, feelings, and affect, but one that is interdisciplinary in nature that understands emotional states as social constructions and sociocultural in nature as well.

[5] From a Disability Studies in Education approach, it is important to acknowledge that some people with disabilities would prefer a disability identity-first language and it is perfectly fine to put the disability identity first. This is so, given that disability is seen from a minority model approach where disability serves as a political identity in order to garner civil rights (Longmore, 2003).

[6] Nevertheless, we want to be explicit about the importance of understanding that we are not advocating for “objectivity” here, since we understand that there is no such thing. Moving beyond binaries of subjectivity and objectivity is important to build upon one’s inclusive critical thinking and acting within educational relationships and systems. In addition, as stated earlier in the blog, teaching and (un)learning is a political act and antithetical to neutrality.



Ainlay, S. C., Becker, G., & Coleman, L. M. (1986). The Dilemma of difference: A multidisciplinary view of stigma. New York, NY: Plenum.

Artiles, A. J., King-Thorius, K., Bal, A., Waitoller, F., Neal, R., & Hernández-Saca, D. I. (2011). Beyond culture as group traits: Future learning disabilities ontology, epistemology, and research knowledge use. Learning Disability Quarterly, 34, 167-179.

Artiles, A. J. (2015). Beyond responsiveness to identity badges: Future research on culture in disability and implications for RTI. Educational Review, 67(1), 1-22.

Artiles, A. J. (2017, October 19). Re-envisioning equity research: Disability identificationdisparities as a case in point. Fourteenth annual AERA Brown lecture in Education Research. Retrieved from: http://www.aera.net/Events-Meetings/Annual-Brown-Lecture-in-Education-Research

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.). Handbook of Theory and

Research for the Sociology of Education (241-258). New York, Greenwood. Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241.

Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). P.L. 89-10.

Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA). P.L. 114-95.

Fitzpatrick, J.L., Sanders, J.R., & Worthen, B.R. (4th Ed.) (2011). Program evaluation: Alternative approaches and practical guidelines. New York, NY: Allyn & Bacon.

Fetterman, D. M., & Wandersman, A. (2004). Empowerment Evaluation Principles in Practices. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Fromm, E. (1956). The art of loving. New York, NY: Harper Row.

Gallo, S. (2016). Mi padre: Mexican immigrant fathers and their children’s education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Ginsberg, M.B., Kamat, S., Raghu, R., & Weaver, J. (1995). Educators and politics: Interpretations, involvement, and implications. In Ginsberg, M. B. (Ed.). The Politics of Educators’ Work and Lives. New York, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Greene, G. (2011). Transition Planning for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Youth. Brookes Transition to Adulthood Series. Baltimore, Maryland: Brookes Publishing Company.

Hall, S. (1997). Race, the floating signifier. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation. Retrieved from: http://www.mediaed.org/transcripts/Stuart-Hall-Race-the-Floating-Signifier-Transcript.pdf

Harry, B., Allen, N., & McLaughlin, M. (1995). Communication versus compliance: A three-year study of the evolution of African-American parents’ involvement in special education. Exceptional Children, 61(4), 364-377.

Hernández-Saca, D. I. (2017). Re-framing the master narratives of dis/ability at my intersections: An outline of a research agenda. Critical Disability Discourses/Discours critiques dans le champ du handicap, 8, 1-30.

Heshusius, L. & Ballard, K. (1996). How do we count the ways we know? Some background to the project. In Heshusius, L. & Ballard, K. (Eds). From positivism to interpretivism and beyond: Tales of transformation in educational and social research (The mind-body connection), (pp. 1-16). New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). P.L. 108-446.

Longmore, P.K. (2003). Why I burned my book and other essays on disability. Philadelphia: PA: Temple University.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB). P.L. 107-110.

Powell, J. (2012). Racing to justice: Transforming our conceptions of self and other to build an inclusive society. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

Trainor, A.A. (2010). Diverse approaches to parent advocacy during special education home-school interactions: Identification and use of cultural and social capital. Remedial and Special Education, 31(1), 34-47.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K.W. (2014). R-Words: Refusing Research. In Paris, D. & Winn, M. (Eds). Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities (pp.223-248). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Turnbull, R. H. III. (2005). Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Reauthorization-Accountability and personal responsibility. Remedial and Special Education, 26(6), 320-326.

West, C. (1993). Race matters. Boston, MA: Beacon Press

Adaptive Sporting and Recreational Programs Empower Disability Acceptance

By Timothy E. HornikLMSW, CATIS, US Army Veteran and Founder of Blind Not Alone.Tim is a disability and Veterans advocate pursuing a PhD in Therapeutic Sciences through the University of Kansas Medical Center. He adheres to Dr. Ed Canda’s concept of transilience, or going beyond who you were before to become someone new. He has earned various military and civilian recognitions for his service.


Mr. Hornik earned military and civilian recognition for service. During his military experience, he received the Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, the Purple Heart for injuries sustained, Army Accommodation Medal with Valor for actions in combat, campaign ribbons for service in Iraq and Korea, Combat Action Badge, and many other awards. During his civilian life, he received the University of Kansas (KU) MSW Margo Award for clinical practice, the KU Wounded Warrior Scholarship for his PhD pursuits, inducted into the inaugural UW La Crosse ROTC Hall of Fame, and nominated by UW La Crosse for the US Army ROTC Hall of Fame.

As we flip through social media feeds it is common to hit upon anything from a shared post on some fitness app, like Straba, to “liking” a friend’s running race results  These posts may motivate us to remain physically active or inspire us to establish health and wellness goals (Teodoro & Naaman, 2013). Our timelines and feeds lead us to conclude that the society generating our online experiences clearly cares about physical fitness.  Unfortunately, the National Institute of Health recently reported otherwise.  In the last decade one out of three American adults and 13% of American adolescents achieved an average body mass index (BMI) classification of either overweight or obese  (Ng et al., 2014).

For individuals with disabilities, the chances of being overweight or obese are even greater.  In 2010, The Center for Disease Control reported 57% more adults and 84% more adolescents with disabilities were overweight and/or more obese than their peers

Factors such as access to quality nutrition, financial and social resources to engage in physical fitness-related activities, secondary effects of medications or conditions, and access to suitable equipment and programs, directly impact these elevated rates (Jaarsma, Dijkstra, Geertzen, & Dekker, 2014; Warburton, Nicol, & Bredin, 2006).

Dr. Chen and Tim Hornik

Dr. Robert Chen, left, and Tim Hornik appear pleased following their portion of the blinded veteran relay at the California International Marathon.

However, by understanding how to achieve fitness goals, individuals with disabilities may reverse national trends. In a study of older adults, moderate to vigorous physical activities three times a week lowered their mortality rates by 22%  (Hupin et al., 2015).

image (1)

Children who participated in a group aerobic and strength training program for 60 minutes twice a week achieved fitness goals established by the 2010 President’s Fitness Test for their age groups (Fragala-Pinkham, Haley, Rabin, & Kharasch, 2005).  For adults, research pinpointing precise strategies or fitness requirements vary based on an individual’s disability. Community and group programs tend to do more than just empower one to reach their fitness goals, they more importantly aid in the process of accepting a disability or adopting a positive disability identity (Lai, Young, Bickel, Motl, & Rimmer, 2017; Lundberg, Taniguchi, McCormick, & Tibbs, 2011; Ponchillia, Ponchillia, & Strause, 2002).


The impact of fitness goals goes beyond health and wellness.  It alters self-perception.  Consider an individual who has just lost their sight. It’s common for people in this position to feel suddenly secluded. The simple act of going for a run resides largely outside of their abilities without accommodations and supports. No cane technique affords one the chance to truly hit a moderate to vigorous running pace and cycling independently remains elusive—at least for the time being. The solution requires a community approach. Blind Running or cycling quickly becomes a team sport through sighted guides and tandem captains. An individual’s results range from the achievement of fitness goals, to a sense of belonging, to engagement with community, to empowerment in establishing new independent living goals (Ponchillia, Ponchillia, & Strause, 2002)


The sense of positive effects of being a part of something greater than oneself in achieving a previously impossible goal echoes my feelings generated during my time in the US Army before losing my sight — and in every race or event I’ve participated in since then.  My sight loss stems from injuries sustained during combat operations in Iraq.  The Warrior culture places a significant value on one’s ability to demonstrate individual physical prowess during fitness tests and to developing a sense of cohesion, improved morale, and esprit de corps through group activities.


Throughout my military service, my fitness goals pushed me to exceed minimum requirements and obtain the maximum score possible. Early in my career, I managed to easily achieve this, earning the respect of those under my leadership and generating a high level of self-confidence. These feelings of accomplishment came crashing down after I lost my sight and could no longer independently run, cycle, or do a host of other activities.

During my rehabilitation process, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Army Wounded Warrior Program, and friends and family contributed to developing my disability identity.  Initially I rejected outright all attempts to integrate tools and skills which brought any attention to my blindness. The only exception involved assistive technologies for computers. This would align with my love for computers and an understanding of the role they would play in my remaining time in the Army.  At no point during this period did anyone attempt to assess my capacity for setting goals in adaptive sporting or recreational programs.


Nearly a decade after being injured, Richard Hunter, a blind Marine, drew my attention to adaptive sports through his events for the visually impaired division of the California International Marathon. While I participated in a couple of events for disabled Veterans, none of them truly demonstrated the power of adaptive sports to foster life changing dynamics between peers, volunteers, and community supporters. It mattered not whether one crushed the marathon with a two and a half hour time or if they putzed through a leg on a relay team like I did.  We all celebrated, regardless of our differences, together. For the first time, I truly felt proud to be blind.

It does not matter whether one establishes a goal to win their division or to simply participate. I continue to feel this way throughout any of the events I attend. When Dr. Mike Reynolds and I competed in the 204 mile Dirty Kanza gravel race, we constantly found ourselves surrounded by other riders asking about tandem riding. The funniest part is that no one realized I was blind until they saw me crossing the stage with Dr. Reynolds with my white cane to mount the first-place podium for the tandem class. Likewise, my sighted running guide, Chris Benjamin and I, spent much time talking with each other and fellow participants during the Kansas City Marathon and the Trolley Run.



VA Awards $8M in Adaptive Sports Program Grants to Aid Disabled Veterans. Image taken from U.S Department of Veterans Affairs. 

It is high time for adaptive sporting programs to cease to be viewed as hobbies or remedial recreational programs for individuals with disabilities. Rather, rehabilitation plans and individual educational plans need to incorporate fitness and adaptive sporting measures. This would benefit individuals with disabilities by providing the tools needed to combat obesity, promote disability acceptance (Lundberg et al., 2011), forge lasting community bonds (Zabriskie, Lundberg, & Groff, 2005), and increase employability (Lastuka & Cottingham, 2016).


Fragala-Pinkham, M. A., Haley, S. M., Rabin, J., & Kharasch, V. S. (2005). A fitness program for children with disabilities. Physical therapy, 85(11), 1182-1200.

Hupin, D., Roche, F., Gremeaux, V., Chatard, J.-C., Oriol, M., Gaspoz, J.-M., . . . Edouard, P. (2015). Even a low-dose of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity reduces mortality by 22% in adults aged≥ 60 years: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med, bjsports-2014-094306.

Jaarsma, E., Dijkstra, P., Geertzen, J., & Dekker, R. (2014). Barriers to and facilitators of sports participation for people with physical disabilities: A systematic review. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 24(6), 871-881.

Lai, B., Young, H.-J., Bickel, C. S., Motl, R. W., & Rimmer, J. H. (2017). Current trends in exercise intervention research, technology, and behavioral change strategies for people with disabilities: A scoping review. American journal of physical medicine & rehabilitation, 96(10), 748-761.

Lastuka, A., & Cottingham, M. (2016). The effect of adaptive sports on employment among people with disabilities. Disability and rehabilitation, 38(8), 742-748.

Lundberg, N. R., Taniguchi, S., McCormick, B. P., & Tibbs, C. (2011). Identity negotiating: Redefining stigmatized identities through adaptive sports and recreation participation among individuals with a disability. Journal of Leisure Research, 43(2), 205.

Ng, M., Fleming, T., Robinson, M., Thomson, B., Graetz, N., Margono, C., . . . Abera, S. F. (2014). Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980–2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. The lancet, 384(9945), 766-781.

Ponchillia, P., Ponchillia, S., & Strause, B. (2002). Athletes with visual impairments: Attributes and sports participation. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB), 96(04).

Teodoro, R., & Naaman, M. (2013). Fitter with Twitter: Understanding Personal Health and Fitness Activity in Social Media. ICWSM, 2013, 611-620.

Warburton, D. E., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Canadian medical association journal, 174(6), 801-809.

Zabriskie, R. B., Lundberg, N. R., & Groff, D. G. (2005). Quality of life and identity: The benefits of a community-based therapeutic recreation and adaptive sports program. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, 39(3), 176.


Strengths Based Inclusive

By James R. Thompson, PhD

All doctoral students and faculty in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas participate in specializations. The six specializations include the Strengths Based and Inclusive Approaches to the Education of Adolescents with Extensive and Pervasive Support Needs sequence of which I co-lead. I suspect that our specialization has the longest program sequence name in the entire field of education and it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Because several of us have had a hard time getting the full name correct when asked, we’ve started calling it Strengths Based Inclusive for short.

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KU Department of Special Education website

Leaving the length of the name aside for a moment, there are probably many people outside of the field of special education, and perhaps some inside as well, who might be curious about our focus on “strengths”.  After all, our doctoral sequence is intended to prepare scholars whose future work concerns children and adults with disability diagnoses that are consistent with intellectual disability and related developmental disabilities. Isn’t that population different from the general population because of their deficits?


The definitions that are used for diagnoses of disability clearly suggest that evidence of a deficit is a distinguishing characteristic. For example, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), intellectual disability is “a disorder with onset during the developmental period that includes both intellectual and adaptive functioning deficits in conceptual, social, and practical domains” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 33).  This deficit-based definition and approach to understanding people with disabilities is consistent with what has traditionally been known as the medical model of disability.


Identifying deficits within a person can be useful to the extent that deficits can be prevented or remediated. Certainly, preventing neurological impairment and teaching people useful skills are worthwhile endeavors. However, the downside to the medical model becomes apparent in instances where a condition cannot be prevented (i.e., the central nervous system is already formed) and achievement gaps cannot be fully remediated, even with the very best instruction.

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Illustration by Pete Gamlen.

When viewed through a medical model lens, a condition that cannot be fixed is understood to be a chronic pathology. An implication of such a conceptualization is to focus professional efforts on caring for people in specialized settings, much like people who are physically ill being provided care in a hospital. Pathologizing and medicalizing disability has historically resulted in restricting people’s opportunities to participate as full citizens in society.

downloadAn alternative to the medical model is a social-ecological model to understanding disability, where disability is understood in terms of the fit between a person’s competence and the demands of community environments. Understanding people this way focuses professional efforts on modifying the context in which people function. It is important to point out that a social-ecological conceptualization does not call for denying that people with disabilities experience limitations in personal competency. Their limitations in competency, however, are not their most salient characteristic. According to a social-ecological conceptualization, the most important difference between people with disabilities and the general population is that people with disabilities need extra support to successfully participate in daily life activities in community settings. Educators and other human service professionals are called to prioritize time and energy on (a) making environments and activities more accessible and welcoming, and (b) identifying and arranging personalized supports so that a person can successfully participate in culturally valued settings to afford access to rich life experiences.


Zahra Al Dhamin, Saudi Arabian sculptor. Photograph by Gadsen-Hayton.  BBC Online blog  review of exhibition Disabled People at Work by Kathleen Hawkins, June, 2014.

So, in terms of the real world, what does this changing conceptualization of disability really mean? I know a young man whose life experiences provide a good example of the power of a strengths-based, supports oriented, and inclusive approach to working with people with disabilities. For the past five years this young man has been employed as an office worker in one of the world’s largest insurance companies. His job involves sorting and delivering mail and running an array of office machines, while often being pulled away from his own duties to help others in the office who are in a pinch. From a deficit-based perspective, an observer could point out that it took him longer to learn his job tasks compared to others whom his company might have hired, and he has continued to require more direction and coaching on the job than most other employees.  He might never had been hired had the focus been placed solely on these challenges.


Instead, his strengths were taken into consideration and he has proven to be an excellent, long-term employee. Although he could not learn job tasks as quickly as others, this was not a weakness that kept him out of the job market. Rather, his commitment to learning helped him master the duties his job required, and once he learned them he learned them  well. The fact that he needed more direction and coaching than others did not prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to job success. Rather, his job required someone who was willing to follow directions from others, and it was important to have someone who could be counted on to do job assignments as directed. His eagerness to help others and his flexible disposition were strengths that served him well in a job that required him to step away from his normal duties and assist others who found themselves in a time crunch. Perhaps his most important talents were his cheerfulness and ability to bring out the best qualities in others. These personal strengths had a positive effect on the office climate, which enhanced everyone’s productivity and motivation.


The Two Fridas (1939) by Frida Kahlo. Image courtesy of the Frida Kahlo Foundation.

It would be a mistake, however, to limit consideration of people’s strengths and talents to only those that are directly relevant to success at school or on a job. Most people want to embody and share different sides of themselves; that is, they seek multiple ways to demonstrate their strengths and make contributions to the world. Having a multi-faceted life may even be essential to living a fulfilling life. Can we envision people with extensive or pervasive support needs in non-vocational and non-student roles? Can we envision them as artists, preachers, chefs, gardeners, travel enthusiasts, athletes, sports fans, or in any other culturally valued role that grows and asserts itself  from an inner passion? Can we encourage people with extensive or pervasive support needs to develop their strengths in ways that enable them pursue life experiences that truly enhance their quality of life? A story from Psychology’s history shows what can happen when people with intellectual disability are allowed to discover their dormant/hidden/undervalued strengths.


In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, a group of adolescent girls and women with developmental disabilities were living at a state institution in Iowa with nearly 2,000 other residents. Near to  the institution was a severely overcrowded and understaffed state-run orphanage. The orphanage was in dire straits due to a perfect storm of an increasing number of destitute women who simply did not have the means to take care of their babies, a decreasing number of families that were in any economic position to adopt, and a dearth of public funding for human services. Infants at the orphanage were failing to thrive physically and intellectually due to a lack of stimulation. With literally no room to place another baby, two infants (15 and 18 months old) who showed signs of significant developmental delays were temporarily moved to women’s cottages on the grounds of a state school in Iowa. Dr. Skeels (1966), who chronicled the events, recalled, “The youngsters were pitiful little creatures. They were tearful, had runny noses, and sparse, stringy, and colorless hair; they were emaciated, undersized, and lacked muscle tonus or responsiveness. Sad and inactive, the two spent days rocking and whining” (p. 5).

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Video still taken from a documentary titled “In Our Care: Glenwood State Hospital and School” produced in 1952.  Retrieved from YouTube.

Six months after placement, Dr. Skeels (1966) visited the wards of the institution where the babies had been left. He observed two toddlers “smiling, running about, responding to the playful attention of adults and looking like any other toddlers” (p. 6). He did not recognize them as the two “pitiful” babies that had been sent from the orphanage a little over a half of a year ago. He returned to the orphanage, which was in every bit of disarray as it was six months earlier, and concluded “There seemed to be only one alternative, and that a rather fantastic one; namely to transfer mentally retarded children in the orphanage nursery, one to two years of age, to an institution for feebleminded in order to make them normal” (Skeels & Dye, 1939/2002, p. 21).

Dr. Skeels convinced the State of Iowa to allow him to identify the infants with intellectual disability in the orphanage.  Half were sent to the institution (the experimental group) and half remained at the orphanage (the control group). A follow-up two years later showed the experimental group infants were thriving while the control group infants were languishing (Skeels & Dye, 1939/2002). The experimental children lost their diagnosis (i.e., they no longer met deficit criteria for intellectual disability) and 12 of the 13 were adopted by families. When the children from the two groups were contacted 25 years later, all of the experimental group children were found to be self-supporting adults, compared to only 4 of the 12 control group children (Skeels, 1966).

Psychology was still a relatively young field at the time of Dr. Skeels’ study, and by today’s standards his research was significantly flawed in terms of scientific rigor. Many would suggest it was flawed ethically as well (How could they leave half of the children in the orphanage, knowing that they would be neglected?). From a research standpoint, the biggest problem was that data collection and analyses were overly focused on IQ score changes; infant and early childhood IQ scores are notoriously unreliable, and therefore IQ was not valid as a dependent measure. However, despite questionable data, Dr. Skeels’ main conclusion was spot on. Namely, babies need stimulation and human contact (e.g., touch, affection) to flourish. Neglectful early environments can result in a failure to thrive with long-term effects. Dr. Skeels deserves credit for influencing a line of research targeted to understanding how experiences and conditions early in life can affect future physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development.

Screen Shot 2017-11-11 at 1.17.54 PMUnfortunately, very little is known about the women who cared for these neglected babies. But, what is known is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Skeels and Dye (1939/2002) reported that each child was placed on a ward that included 30 institutional inmates (this was term used at the time for institutionalized adults) who they described as older girls, and one attendant (there a was staff hierarchy, with matrons and assistant matrons in charge of the wards, and attendants were the lowest level of employee). We also know that “in the case of almost every child, some one adult (older girl or attendant) would become particularly attached to a given child and would figuratively ‘adopt’ him” (p. 25). But, everyone contributed. “The girls would spend a great deal of time with the children, teaching them to walk, talk, play with toys and play materials, and in the training of habits. Most of the clothing for these children was made by the older girls. The girls were so fond of the children that they would actually spend their small earnings and allowances to buy them special foods, toys, picture books, and materials for clothing” (p. 24).

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Video still taken from the documentary “In Our Care: Glenwood State Hospital and School” produced in 1952.  Retrieved from YouTube.

The pitiful infants certainly brought a priceless gift with them to the institution. Namely, they offered those who were willing to love them the opportunity to discover their own strengths and talents, and to find additional meaning in their own lives. What a delightful change of pace it must have been to have a baby on the ward to love and to hold. What joy these babies must have brought to their temporary mothers.  In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl (1992) explains how he survived the Holocaust by finding personal meaning through his experiences. He writes:

Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself (p. 115).

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Psychiatric Hospital of Schönbrunn, 1934. Photo by Nazi Party SS member, Friedrich Franz Bauer

After 2-3 years at the institution, the toddlers were removed and returned to the orphanage because they were now perceived to be promising candidates for adoption. Did the mothers take pride in the work they had done? Did they celebrate the fact that they had provided their child with an opportunity for adoption by a family? Were they even aware that this was the child’s likely fate? Or, was a child, who was loved dearly by a group of women, taken away from them without much explanation? Did any of them question why, despite their efforts and success, they were no longer considered to be worthy to be mothers, or even provided opportunities to maintain their relationships with these children?

Skeels and Dye’s (1939/2002) famous study offers little to us today in terms of guidance in regard to child development. There is far more solid research documenting the importance of optimizing the early years of a child’s life. The most relevant lesson we can take away from their study concerns the importance of understanding people with disabilities by their strengths and seeing their potential to enhance the lives of others with whom they are associated.  The women from the Glenwood State School were briefly provided an opportunity to discard their identities as institutional inmates, and discover their strengths as healers and mothers.


Art work by Aoife Hyland Sidener, 6th grade middle school student, Kansas.

In the Strength Based Inclusive sequence the efforts of students and faculty members coalesce around research agendas that bring to light the strengths and gifts of people with extensive and pervasive support needs.  We strive to prepare future educators to see past disability labels while recognizing and fostering the talents of their students. As long as the faculty and students in our doctoral program sequence remain true to these ideals, it is probably OK if we continue struggle to correctly recall the full name of our sequence.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Frankl, V. E. (1992). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy (4th ed.). Beacon Press: Boston, MA. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/MansSearchForMeaning-English

Skeels, H. M., & Dye, H. B. (1939/2002). A study of the effects of differential simulation on mentally retarded children. Proceedings of the American Association on Mental Deficiency, 44, 114-136. Reprinted in J. Blacher & B. Baker (Eds), The Best of AAMR: Families and Mental Retardation: A Collection of Notable AAMR Journal Articles Across the 20th Century. American Association on Mental Retardation: Washington, DC.

Skeels, H. M. (1966). Adults status of children with contrasting early life experiences: A follow-up study. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 31 (3, Series No. 105).


James R. Thompson, Ph.D. has over 30 years of experience in the field of developmental disabilities as a direct support professional, special educator, rehabilitation counselor, teacher educator, and researcher. He has authored or co-authored over 70 books, book chapters, monographs, and articles in professional journals, and has directed multiple federal and state funded research and model demonstration projects. His primary research focus for the past 15 years has been on support needs assessment and planning with children and adults with intellectual disability and related developmental disabilities. He is the lead author of American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities’ Supports Intensity Scales (both the adult version and the children’s version), the first assessment tools to provide standardized measures of the support needs of people with disabilities. The Supports Intensity Scales have been translated and published in 13 languages, and are being used throughout the United States and world. Jim serves as Editor of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Dr. Thompson serves as a Professor in the Department of Special Education, Senior Scientist at the Beach Center on Disability, and Associate Director of the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities. He has previously served on the Board of Directors for the AAIDD and the Council for Exceptional Children’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Division. He currently serves as Editor of the professional journal, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

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