3 Ways Stephen Hawking Revealed Possibilities for People with Disabilities

In a May 2011 interview with the New York Times, journalist Claudia Dreifus asked Stephen Hawking, “Given all you’ve experienced, what words would you offer someone who has been diagnosed with a serious illness, perhaps A.L.S.?”

Hawking, who prepared his answers ahead of the in-person interview, answered: “My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically.”

Hawking’s progressive and positive attitude toward disability here exemplifies everything Easterseals works toward every day: A world in which people with disabilities can achieve their goals without barriers; the notion that disability isn’t something to fear or regret, rather it’s a natural part of life.

Let’s dig a little deeper into his wise words:

  1. Concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well: Certain things may be harder to accomplish with a disability, but that doesn’t mean that everything will be. Everyone is uniquely capable of contributing talent, perspective, and skill to make an impact. Hawking was a wonderful example of this. We help people of all abilities make their unique impact at Easterseals, with the right supports and resources. We are confident that one of the next world-changers will be a part of the Easterseals family.
  2.  Don’t regret the things (your disability) interferes with: Hawking was diagnosed with A.L.S. in 1963 at the age of 21. Following his diagnosis he resisted using a wheelchair. Becoming a person with a disability later in life (as opposed to being born with a disability) was hard on him. However, he eventually let go of regret and focused on what he was good at and what he was put on this earth to do. He embraced assistive technology to continue his groundbreaking work, and had a hand in developing and advancing the programs he used. Later he became a vocal disability advocate, taking part in the Charter for the Third Millennium on Disability, which stated: “In the 21st century, we must insist on the same human and civil rights for people with disabilities as for everyone else.”
  3. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically: The experience of being human includes disability. We all have the capacity to reach for our wildest dreams, live the fullest lives, and make the greatest change in the world – not in spite of perceived limitations, sometimes because of them. It is what makes us unique, genuine and complete. Hawking calls us all to not be a barrier to ourselves while navigating difficulties in life. Do not stifle the dreams you were born to realize.

For Hawking, the limits of what was possible were vast. He made us consider not just the wonder of the stars, but the wonder of our existence. We remember him as one of the great minds of our time, but I hope we also remember him as an important figure in the timeline of disability history.

I’ll leave you with another wonderful quote from this same interview: “Obviously, because of my disability, I need assistance. But I have always tried to overcome the limitations of my condition and lead as full a life as possible. I have traveled the world, from the Antarctic to zero gravity. Perhaps one day I will go into space.”

Connect with Angela: LinkedIn | Twitter

More blog posts by Angela Williams:

 

Accessibility Means Being Part Of The Community

Erin Hawley

Erin Hawley

Accessibility breaks barriers. It’s not just about navigating a space using a wheelchair, or working in a scent-free environment; these are both part of a bigger, more important consideration – that disabled people should have access to the community.

Visiting friends or going to a restaurant means calling ahead to check if a place is accessible, researching public transit routes, and hoping subway elevators aren’t down for maintenance. Leaving your house is a gamble, and a drain on physical, financial, and/or emotional resources. For me, attending any type of gaming convention (I’m a huge nerd) needs lots of planning and checking in with game designers to see if their event is accessible for me; sometimes I can play, sometimes I can’t. And while the games I do play are exciting and memorable, I can’t help but think of all I am missing out on.

This feeling translates across every facet of my social life, from friend’s parties, to concerts, to historical tours, to vacations and weddings and volunteer opportunities. I do a lot of fun and meaningful things via online communities, like Easterseals Thrive, but I don’t always feel part of an offline, local community beyond my immediate family – and sometimes that hurts.

Inaccessibility leads to isolation, to feeling like you are not wanted in a space. Inaccessibility is mostly a result of ignorance and the belief that disabled people don’t go out in the community. I can tell you that most of us do, but more of us would go out if things were accessible. I want to be more involved with my local community, but I am often reminded that I am not welcome here. My town prioritizes history and old-time charm over accessibility, and any attempt at change, or even dialogue, is met with scorn.

But there’s room for hope. Easterseals affiliates and organizations across the nation are working toward community access equality. Easterseals Project Action Consulting offers travel training based on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many affiliates, like Easterseals New Jersey, offer Day Habilitation, a program that gets disabled people involved in social settings with peers and in the community. These services are crucial, and will change how society views and treats disabled people.

An accessible community is something I dream of. I imagine a fully accessible public transit system with adequate room for wheelchairs and other mobility devices. Curb cuts on every corner, and paved sidewalks. A ramp in every home. Captions and audio descriptions for movie theaters. ASL interpreters at events. Quiet rooms. Braille restaurant menus. The list goes on.

I do think these goals are achievable. In fact, many are already on their way to becoming a reality; we just need to keep pushing for change.

What does an accessible community look like to you?

More posts by Erin:

Thankful For Online Friends and the Technology That Connects Us

Empowered and Disabled: Why I Don’t Like ‘Special Needs’

Disability and Dating: How to Find Love While Being True to Yourself

 

Women’s History Month Highlight: A Mom Who Made Textbooks Accessible

Vivette Rifkin reading a textbook into a microphone

Thanks to Vivette Rifkin and other readers, students with visual impairments got their textbooks in audio on a timely basis.

I’m giving a talk at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) this afternoon to honor a woman who helped young people with visual impairments and other disabilities make it through school 50+ years ago.

Some background about the woman the seminar is named for: Vivette R. Rifkin (1911 – 2007) founded Educational Tape Recording for the Blind in the 1960s to help her daughter Jill and countless other people with visual impairments and other disabilities succeed at school. Jill was born prematurely and was left with badly impaired vision. In her younger years Jill attended a special school for children who had disabilities, and when she expressed a desire to attend her neighborhood high school and go on to college, her mother helped by recording textbooks for her. When her daughter started at University of Missouri, Mrs. Rifkin and her team started recording textbooks for students all over the country. From the Chicago Tribune:

What made Mrs. Rifkin’s firm especially valuable was its quick turn-around on book orders. Employing a team of volunteers, and recording for five hours a day herself, Mrs. Rifkin would get students and others the books they needed, even lengthy tomes on science and other subjects, in a matter of days.

Vivette Rifkin herself never had the chance to go to college, but in 1999 the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) awarded her an honorary doctorate of humane letters. After Mrs. Rifkin’s death in 2007, her family established the Vivette R. Rifkin Seminar at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Late last year I was contacted by Keenan Cutsforth, Assistant Dean for Advancement at the UIC College of Applied Health Sciences, to invite me to meet with him and Dovie Horvitz, another of Vivette Rifkin’s daughters, to talk about the 2018 Vivette R. Rifkin Seminar. Over lunch, Dovie told us that her mother had been recording textbooks well into her nineties. “The University of Illinois was right to give her that degree,” Dovie said with a shrug and a smile. “After reading thousands and thousands of college textbooks, she could have been hired to teach classes there!”

Dovie and I really hit it off over lunch that day — how could you not love a woman named Dovie? After lunch she accompanied me to an elementary school in Deerfield to hear me talk with the kids there, and now I’m looking forward to being with her again at the seminar this afternoon. Here are the details :

The 2018 Vivette R. Rifkin Seminar presented by Beth Finke

Blind in the City: Not as Dark as it Sounds

Description: In her presentation, Beth will outline her decision to move from a small community to a large city after losing her sight at age 26. Through her talk, Finke will examine cultural attitudes about disability, reasonable accommodation issues, and the role disability arts and culture movements play in urban life.

Thursday, March 15
12:30 – 1:45 p.m.

UIC Lecture Center Building F, F006
807 S. Morgan St.

It is an honor to be asked to give a talk for the 2018 Vivette R. Rifkin Seminar. I hope I do it justice. For more information about this event, directions or other inquiries, contact Keenan Cutsforth, Assistant Dean for Advancement at the UIC College of Applied Health Sciences, at keenanc@uic.edu or 312.966.1339.

 

I Waited To Disclose My Disability. Here’s What Happened.

This is part two of Ali’s interview story. You can catch part one here, where she walks us through her job search experience.

A laptop next to a phone and some pencils and pensOn the day of my job interview, I turned from nervous to excited. At least, while I was on the bus.

I had scheduled the ride well in advance. They usually drop off all the on-campus riders before the off-campus ones, but that day, even though the other passenger was staying on campus, the driver went out of his way to drop me off first. This was a job interview, and the driver agreed with me that the earlier I got there, the better.

When we arrived, the driver led me in the building, and that’s when the excitement turned to nervousness. Remember: I hadn’t told them ahead of time that I was blind, so I’d be walking in with my cane and they were going to have to interact with me face-to-face.

Or were they? What if they told me to leave? Would they really tell me that? Why might they? All these thoughts were circulating around my head when the driver approached someone at the desk and told them I was here for an interview. I took it from there — I can speak for myself.

The receptionist hesitated a moment. “You’re here for the job?” she asked, and I couldn’t tell if maybe it was just me over-analyzing it or if she actually sounded skeptical. Like, skeptical of my ability or something. I gave a confident smile and said yes. She told me to sit down. I politely asked her to lead me to a chair, and she acted flustered while giving me directions.

Once I was seated, she then gave me the name of the person who would be interviewing me. My heart sank. It was the same person I’d talked to on the phone, the one I didn’t want to talk to now. But I had to. I plastered on a smile and said, “Okay, thanks.”

When the interviewer explained the job, he said material had to be “sent over” to a department where data is collected. I am familiar with Microsoft Excel and spreadsheets, that sort of thing, but the guy said they don’t have the type of software I would need to do the job. He practically dismissed me right then and there.

I think I took this all well, though. I thanked him for his time, and I also made him aware that a lot of blind people do search for jobs. I told him it’s very possible that I’m not the only blind person he will see interviewing for this job. I recommended he call the Disability Resource Center here on campus. If nothing else, maybe they’ll have a software recommendation.

When I walked out of the office, though, I was very discouraged. I called the bus driver, and when I told him I was ready for a ride home, he said, “You’re done already?” The interview was supposed to last a half-hour. It had only been ten minutes. I could tell the driver knew from my voice it did not go well. “I’m on my way,” he said.

I called my boyfriend Joe from the bus, of course. This was one of those days where being blind is really difficult. It doesn’t normally bother me. Sometimes I just have minor mishaps throughout the day where I think, “This would be easier if I could see,” but this… this felt different. It sort of shook my confidence for a while.

When I told all this to Joe, he sympathized. He said he was sorry it didn’t go well, but he was proud of me for putting myself out there and getting the experience. He also took the time to remind me of a talk we had a while ago about the advantages of being blind.

It’s something I try to remember when I have these type of days.

 

‘Do I Tell A Prospective Employer I’m Blind Before An Interview?’

A pair of sunglasses on a white desk next to a keyboard and mouse.Once I settled in after transferring colleges, I decided it was time to apply for a job. 

Despite some accessibility issues with the application, I was able to apply for a job I thought I was well qualified for. A week went by with no word, but I was so busy with schoolwork that week that I actually forgot about it.

I received a phone call the next week, but when I didn’t recognize the number that came up on the caller ID, I didn’t answer. I checked the voicemail they left me, though, and when I found it was from the place where I had recently applied, I immediately called them back.

The person on the phone told me that they got my voicemail and asked if I was still interested in the job. I said I was. They discussed the number of hours and where they were located.

While we conversed, I noticed they didn’t sound very pleasant, almost annoyed or bored like they didn’t actually want to be talking to me. But I ignored that, because I really did want this job. I went along with it, but I did secretly hope this wouldn’t be the person doing the interview.

After the interview was set up, I was overjoyed. I was also nervous, though, because there was a pressing issue that was nagging at me: Do I tell the employer that I’m blind? If I were to tell them, they’d know ahead of time and could think about accommodations, if there needed to be any. They could also jump to the conclusion that I was incapable of doing the job before even having met me. What to do?

Finding a job can be a problem for people who are blind or visually impaired. The American Federation of the Blind reports that 75 percent of the estimated 4 million adults in the U.S. who are blind or visually impaired are not in the labor force.

I had asked my boyfriend for his input, as well as a few of my friends that are also blind. I wanted to gain their perspective. They all said that ultimately, it was up to me. This didn’t help! For some reason, I wanted someone to tell me exactly what to do. When I told my parents about the interview, I asked them the same thing, and they gave me the same answer. So I finally decided on my own: I wasn’t going to tell them.

The day before the interview, I received a call from the same person saying a snowstorm was on the way. They’d already been informed that my university would be closing the next day, so we needed to reschedule the interview.

So, we rescheduled it for February 13th. That gave me four days to prepare, but also an extra four days to just wait. I’m not good at waiting.

Stay tuned for part two of Ali’s story, where she shares her interview experience!

 

“How Do You Know Your Service Dog is Sitting?”

Photo of Beth and Whitney in front of fifth graders.

The fifth graders at Glen Grove school.

Early last month we published a post I wrote about a trip my Seeing Eye dog and I were taking to a school in the Chicago suburbs. The fifth graders we were visiting that day at Glen Grove Elementary are working with the Nora Project. They’ve already been paired with a student who has special needs, and now these ten and eleven-year olds seem excited – yet understandably nervous – to start interviewing their buddy’s family members and others who spend time with their buddy outside of school. As a writer/journalist who has conducted hundreds of interviews, I was there to answer their questions and quell their nerves.

These students will be using iPads to record video of the interviews they do. Soon they’ll combine footage from the interviews with video of their own interactions with their buddies. The documentaries they create from all this footage will be presented at an assembly towards the end of the school year.

The only way I know to explain how their curiosity about my blindness intertwined with their concerns about the upcoming interviews is to look over some of the questions they asked during the Q&A part of my presentation:

  • You say in your Safe & Sound book that you take your dog’s harness off when you get home. How do you get around your house by yourself?
  • What would be the best questions to ask to get the best answers from the Nora Project parents?
  • You can’t see, so what sense do you rely on the most?
  • If you tell your dog to sit, and you can’t see the dog, how do you know it’s sitting?
  • What did it feel like when you found out you were blind?
  • You and your husband were both working when you found out you were blind, and then they fired you, so what was that like with money?
  • How do you know what you’re wearing?
  • How can we ask questions to get long answers?
  • Do you remember what your childhood was like?
  • What do you do if someone answers your question wrong?
  • If you were never blinded, which would you rather be: a cat person, or a dog person?
  • When you’re asking somebody something, how can you tell if the question is a rude question or a curious question?
  • You look great in that shirt!

That last one was a statement, not a question, but I didn’t correct the student who said it. I just thanked him…and blushed. I absolutely love this Nora Project. Playing a very small part of it during that visit earlier this month was an honor.

To learn more about the Nora Project, visit thenoraproject.ngo. Documentaries produced by students from previous years are available there under the Nora Friends tab.

 

Review: ‘Sensing the Rhythm’ by America’s Got Talent Star, Mandy Harvey

North American music fans know Mandy Harvey from her stunning appearance on America’s Got Talent. The 19-year-old was pursuing a music career when a rapid decrease in her hearing left her completely deaf. Her memoir, Sensing the Rhythm, was recently reviewed on a blog called Life Unscripted: Life as I See it…or Don’t.

I’ve always appreciated the way Life Unscripted reviews books about disabilities, and when I asked if we could publish an excerpt here, they generously said yes. I hope you’ll read to the very end — the final line says it all.

Sensing the Rhythm: Finding My Voice in a World Without Sound

By: Mandy Harvey and Mark Attberry

The book cover of Mandy Harvey's 'Sensing the Rhythm'The publisher of Sensing the Rhythm summarizes Mandy Harvey’s memoir as “a deeply moving story about Mandy’s journey through profound loss, how she found hope and meaning in the face of adversity, and how she discovered a new sense of passion and joy.” Even though the publisher’s summary talks a lot about inspiration and overcoming adversity, I found this short book more approachable and relatable than I expected to.

Initial Impressions

I chose to listen to this book in audio format, narrated by Mandy herself. Mandy’s narration lends additional warmth to her breezy, accessible style of writing. I was immediately transported to an unforgetable performance where, without words, all musicians knew exactly where to be and what to do.

We are taken on Mandy’s journey with her – from the rapid decrease in her hearing to her time of depression to her discovery that she could still sense the rhythm of music. I laughed and cried with Mandy, and some portions of her journey really made me think. I found this short book more approachable and relatable than I expected to.

Disability Identity

Mandy chooses to communicate using sign language, something she thought was important to use during her performance. Her deafness is as much a part of herself as her musicianship, and I found myself feeling a complicated sense of sorrow and frustration when Mandy relates her experiences in early college as her hearing loss was progressing. She asked for an accommodation to learn an assignment and was denied that request.

When students stood up for her, she admitted feeling like a burden, feeling uncomfortable, feeling like her hearing loss made her stand out. I found myself relating to and frustrated by her feelings of her disability experience and the reactions of those around her.

More than Disability

Yes, Mandy is deaf, and yes, she’s a musician. But she has some insights about life that are not exclusively disability-related. In particular, I found her formula for success to be an incredibly insightful look at talent and determination. Her hard-won insights on supporting a loved one through a life-changing event — based on what she found helpful and what she didn’t — may not be revolutionary, but they are told in a gentle and powerful way.

Mandy neither makes herself out to be a saint or a martyr, but as a woman who has made mistakes and chosen to learn from them. There are some portions of her book that some might find preachy (Mandy is a born-again Christian), but they are generally interwoven with her own lived experiences, adding to their tapestry rather than jutting out at odd angles.

Conclusion

I usually prefer longer books and getting to know characters and real people. But Sensing the Rhythm is a short tome that I’m glad I picked up. It’s not a literary masterpiece, but it can be as easy or as profound as you, the reader, make it out to be.

Much like all of us.

 

Black History Month Calls Us All to Be Leaders in Love and Equality

Easterseals President and CEO, Angela F. WilliamsFebruary is Black History Month and at this time I find myself reflecting on prolific leaders who have come before me. Teachings of the past shape our present. This is something I’ve always known, but it is a truth that holds more significance as I embark on a new journey as President and CEO of Easterseals. In particular, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy has always held a special place in my heart and inspired how I lead.

Dr. King’s great dream of a vibrant, multiracial nation united in justice, peace and reconciliation included a place at the table for children of every race and ability. I believe we are called this Black History Month, not merely to honor and remember, but to celebrate the values of equality, tolerance and inclusivity he so compellingly expressed in his great dream for America.

Over the course of human history, we’ve seen pieces of that dream come into fruition — witnessed the power of collective human will for good. But we’ve also seen the destruction of individuals, families and entire communities as a result of intolerance and exclusivity.

As I read Dr. King’s writings, speeches and interviews, I am struck by his eloquence. I am struck by his power and passion to speak truth and life into a world that sometimes fails to acknowledge the worth and dignity of all people.

Dr. King called us to “all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

If this is true, at what point do we citizens in this society recognize that “a house divided cannot stand?”

Dr. King once said that we all have to decide whether we “will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Life’s most persistent and nagging question, he said, is `what are you doing for others?’

This Black History Month, I want you to ask yourself these questions:

  • How do I show love to my neighbors who don’t look like me or are not in my sphere of influence?
  • How do I show love to my colleagues at work? To family members?
  • Am I love in action?

I believe that not only the course of history, but this very moment, can be shaped by acknowledgement and acceptance of your duties and responsibilities to be “love in action.” I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere, of all abilities, can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, dignity, and equality – and that we all have a part in creating such a world.

Easterseals believes in this too. We believe all people should have the opportunity to reach their full potential and be their greatest self – just as Martin Luther King did. It is why we wake up every morning. We strive to be love in action. Will you join us?

Connect with Angela: LinkedIn | Twitter

 

9 Tips for Keeping the Romance Alive in a Relationship

Two years ago Alicia Krage wrote a guest post for our Easterseals national blog about some of the challenges and joys of being – and dating — someone who’s blind. She and Joe are still together, and I asked her if she’d be willing to write a post for Valentine’s Day with advice for others on how to keep a long relationship like theirs stay strong. Lucky for us, she said yes!

Ali and Joe.

Ali and Joe.

by Alicia Krage

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I’m writing a post that focuses less on my disability and more on the foundation of the relationship that my boyfriend Joe and I have built. Joe and I have been together nearly three years now, and I’ve learned a lot of things during that time.

As it goes with any relationship, we’ve had our ups, downs, and obstacles. And we’ve had to make compromises. Over the years I’ve used what I’d learned from previous relationships to strengthen this one. Some of the things I learned were simple, some were difficult, and today I hope my nine tips might help readers who are in a longer relationship keep it going:

  1. Prioritize and make time for each other. You’d be amazed at how little time Joe and I get with each other sometimes. There have been plenty of days when we were both so busy that the only time we saw each other was when we had dinner together at the dining hall for about 30 minutes. After that, it was back to schoolwork. Once things calmed down, we used our next free day to do a date night. Dinner, a movie, or sometimes we’d just have our own game nights here in the dorm. The goal is always the same: quality time together.
  2. Remember that while you are partners, you are also friends. Having known Joe for seven years now, it’s weird to picture a time when he wasn’t in my life. Something that has always been a comfort to me is that we were best friends first. Date nights are fun, keeping the romance alive is important, but I also think it’s important to remember that you’re also friends. I love those moments that remind me that he’s honestly and truly my best friend in the entire world, and there’s nothing I can’t tell him. Heart to hearts at 1am will always be one of my favorite things to share with Joe.
  3. Relationships are not always sunshine and rainbows. Relationships are hard and they take work. I’m usually the type of person that wants to solve things as soon as possible when we’re in a fight — I really hate going to sleep sad or angry. But sometimes it happens. Taking time to breathe, to calm down, and wait until you’ve worked out what you want to say before talking things over (without shouting) is much more effective than trying to solve it ASAP when your words aren’t coming out right.
  4. Communication is key. Since we are both blind, I feel like this is even more important. We can’t look at the other person’s face right after we’ve said something to see their reaction, to know if they’re offended, or if something’s just not okay and they’re having a bad day. We need to communicate these things, because otherwise we literally have no way to know.
  5. Encourage one another during new or challenging experiences. Joe and I have gone to a lot of new places — some local, some not — and it’s nice when one person is more encouraging and has a positive attitude about it. Whenever Joe has an idea of going somewhere or doing something new (the first time we went to the movies, for example) I’m always a bit nervous and instantly start worrying about what will go wrong. Joe always says the same thing: “We’ll figure it out.” I can hear the smile in his voice when he says this, and it’s all the assurance I need. There will be obstacles, but we’ll figure them out as we go.
  6. Don’t just be comfortable with one another and slip into the same day-to-day routine. Surprise one another with things. Occasionally, when I’m picking up a cup of coffee for myself from Dunkin Donuts, I’ll grab a hot chocolate for Joe on the way out. Sometimes Joe comes back to the dorms with Culver’s custard for me. It’s nice to know that while you’re off doing your own thing, someone else is thinking about you.
  7. Balance is key. You can have your own life and your own friends, and you should also want time to yourself. You should unapologetically want that extra space. Sundays are typically that day for me – homework at a coffee shop in the morning, relaxing in the afternoon, and then we usually meet up later in the evening for dinner at the dining hall. We need time to ourselves. Time to ourselves is important.
  8. Be spontaneous. Don’t go to the same places all the time – try something new. One morning Joe and I went to a bagel shop that I discovered online — I’d read good reviews about it on Yelp. Now we go there on Saturdays. Not every Saturday, but on Saturdays when time allows.
  9. Bring back some memories sometimes. Joe and I have had a lot of time together, and it’s nice to take a trip down memory lane. I still remember the precise day we had our first date (March 28, 2015) and where it was (IHOP). Now, every year on that same day, we have dinner at IHOP just like we did that night. Of course it’s different now, but it’s nice to go somewhere that brings back memories and takes us back to where it all began.

More posts by Alicia:

 

The Nora Project Connects Students With and Without Disabilities

My Seeing Eye dogs and I have visited dozens of elementary schools over the years that pair average kids with students who have disabilities in “buddy” programs. The school Whitney and I are visiting today takes that idea one step further.

At Glen Grove Elementary in Glenview, Illinois, students are paired with a fellow student who has a disability, but then these fifth-graders interview family members and others who spend time outside of school with their “buddy,” too. The students use iPads to record video of those interviews, and by combining them with video of their own interactions with their buddies, they create documentaries presented at the end of the school year.

The idea is the brain child of Glen Grove fifth-grade teacher Amanda Martinsen, who was awarded a Human and Civil Rights Award from the Illinois Education Association for a project the IEA described as “life-changing for students with conditions that sometimes make it difficult for them to connect with others.” A story from the Chicago Tribune explains:

“The Nora Project grew out of Martinsen’s concern that students like her cousin’s daughter who have Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and a host of other medical conditions often experience difficulty making connections and friendships with other students in school.

Martinsen said she agreed that the project has been “life-changing” for many students, but not just those with special needs.

‘The change we’ve seen from students is they’re so much more aware of kids with special needs that are different from them,’ she said. ‘They are so much more accepting.’

One student said she had heard the term Down syndrome, but didn’t know what it was, Martinsen said.

‘She said she never thought she would have been friends with someone with Down syndrome, and now she is,’ she said. ‘I see them interacting with many kids. They’re high-fiving each other, asking how their day is.'”

As for me, I’ve been asked to come to Glen Grove Wednesday to share tips on using respectful language and appropriate questions during the interviews they’ll be doing with their buddy’s family members and friends. I’ll tell you one thing: I’m pretty sure I’ll learn more from these fifth graders and their buddies than they will from me!

Mrs. Martinsen’s award-winning project is named for her niece, Nora. To learn more about the Nora Project, visit thenoraproject.ngo. Documentaries produced by the students are available there under the Nora Friends tab.