Speak Out For Understanding – Disability Education and Self Advocacy

Special needs students at Harwood Union High School in South Duxbury, VT realized that the majority of students in their school did not fully understand the challenges faced by people with disabilities. These challenges were not only the complications of a physical, social, or learning disability, but also the stress and frustration of the actions and words used towards them.

A guest speaker from the Vermont Parent Information Center (VPIC) was invited to join the class and discuss the challenges and rights of students with disabilities. Working with the school’s speech-language pathologist and their teacher, the students decided that they wanted to address this problem of lack of understanding within their school community through a service-learning project.

Working with their community partner, VPIC, students explored websites and other sources to learn more about their problem, their legal rights, and possible solutions. Using fundamental learning skills from the Vermont State Education Standards, students practiced critical thinking, problem solving, communication, citizenship, and personal goal setting and researched their own disabilities using their educational records. As the project unfolded, students kept special education portfolios or notebooks in which they reflected on their individual and class progress, as well as their feelings.
Based on their research and reflections, students determined that the best solution to their problem was increased exposure to information about the challenges faced by people with disabilities through education.

They decided to create a documentary about their own experiences and an accompanying teacher’s guide, being sure to include the spectrum of disabilities. The students filmed interviews with each other and members of the student body. They questioned teachers about their observations of students with disabilities in the classroom. The class celebrated their accomplishments by airing their film for the school community.

The video and educational pamphlet opened a school-wide dialogue and increased the social connections between students with and without disabilities. Following the video presentation, comments from teachers, students, parents, and community groups provided evidence that their project had increased understanding. Equally important, the students with disabilities found that they were better able to communicate with others about their disability and advocate for appropriate accommodations at their school.