When James Madison High School students Annie Lee and Brandon Cassady, both of whom have cerebral palsy, approached teacher Gideon Sanders months ago with a desire to stage an event to raise public awareness of disabilities, he saw the inception of what would become a semester's work.
"It started with a small idea, such as, 'Why don't we come up with an idea to respect athletes with disabilities?'" said Lee.
Sanders suggested that the subject be broadened to include various aspects of different disabilities, and he made the event a class project.
"My role in class — one that I've always maintained — is that of facilitator," he said. "This is a student idea. This is what they want to do. This class is their vehicle to do that."
The class, called Combating Intolerance, is designed to teach students to confront difficult social issues by looking past stereotypes and questioning their own preconceptions about those who seem different from themselves. Lee is a student in the class, and her friend Cassady had Sanders as a world studies teacher. The two took charge of coordinating the event, along with Sanders, and the Combating Intolerance class got to work making it happen.
ABOUT THREE MONTHS of effort culminated last Saturday with the all-day Disabilities Symposium 2006, featuring about 18 speakers. The bill of speakers included students and athletes who have various disabilities, as well as those who serve them, such as a surgeon, disabled student services directors and representatives from the high school's special education program. Sanders estimated attendance at about 55 to 60 people.
"There were times when I doubted it would go off as well as it did," said Cassady. "Disabilities are not a big issue like immigration." He added that he felt people often are averse to talking about disabilities.
Lining up speakers was a difficulty, said Lee, noting that the symposium had to be rescheduled several times to accommodate speakers' schedules. Students found out the week before the event that the intended keynote speaker from the Special Olympics organization would not be coming and replaced that spot on the bill with three speakers — U.S. paralympic soccer player Chris Wolf, Lee's friend Mallory Forbes, who spoke about adjusting to a friend with cerebral palsy, and Lee herself.
Cassady emphasized the contributions of the Combating Intolerance class. "Those kids in that class are saints to me," said Cassady. "The whole class was working to help Annie and I get what we wanted off the ground."
Cassady himself spoke at the symposium about his own experiences, including his aversion to some of the language used to describe disabilities. "I said I never really had a handicap, but if I played golf I would probably have a handicap of about 32," he said. He also took some issue with the word "disability," preferring the term "challenge." "I see a disability as a challenge that can be overcome," he said. "If you see it as a challenge, you put yourself on equal footing with everyone else."
Cassady said he was pleased to have two of the school's varsity athletes on hand to demonstrate that not all disabilities are immediately evident, as well as AP Government teacher Brad Linsenmeyer, who testified to the ability of many disabled students to excel in difficult courses. These were two ways the event challenged common misconceptions about disabilities.
ALL TOLD, said Cassady, the symposium was a success. "I was so surprised with the positive response we got," he said. "It was amazing."
His mother, Jann, who runs the school's career center, said she watched her son's confidence grow as the event took shape.
Lee said she not only taught but also learned from her peers about how they deal with their own disabilities. She cited the presentation by Wolf, who was in a car accident in his sophomore year that left him with multiple sclerosis, and who now sees the experience as a positive one.
"He said that before the accident he was a very selfish person and had a negative view of people with physical challenges, and now his outlook has changed completely," she said.
Lee said she hoped the symposium was inspiring and educational to the audience as well. "I just hope that they asked any questions that they had about certain disabilities and walked away with the motivation to live their lives to the fullest," she said.
VARSITY FOOTBALL PLAYER, wrestler and lacrosse player Leonard Weschler said he is a friend of Lee's, who asked him to speak at the symposium. He said he talked about the difficulties that a learning disability adds to playing sports.
This might mean making extra efforts to focus, taking longer to learn plays and staying with the coach after practice, he said. "I have to kind of make my own style at sports," Weschler said. "I have to improvise and use my own skills in certain areas."
He said he enjoyed "getting the word out that there are people with disabilities that look like everybody else, but we just have to work harder than other people." He also noted that he thought he benefitted from the workshop he attended about dealing with disabilities in college, as he plans to continue his education next year.
"I think it went off very well," said Sanders. "The comments I've gotten have all been extremely positive." He also emphasized the positive effects on students. Over the course of the project, he said, "there's been an incredible amount of growth in the majority, if not all, of these students," in terms of dealing with the subject matter, taking responsibility and understanding their role on a team.
His personal highlight from the symposium? "Hearing Annie and Brandon speak. Without a doubt." Watching the two student organizers turn a loosely formed idea into a relatively major event and then get on stage themselves "to present the face of the differently challenged," he said, "was an absolute joy. That's why you go into teaching — to see things like that."