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Taking control of labels, with Paralympic wheelchair athlete Chris Waddell

Fifth and sixth graders had the privilege of spending this morning with Paralympic wheelchair athlete Chris Waddell, the first person with paraplegia to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Waddell’s life story is compelling, but his presentation went far beyond his accomplishments. 

In his talk, and his lively question and answer session, he explored questions of identity and ability, risktaking and resilience, learning and mastery, and the debate about person-first vs. identity-first language. His overarching message was the importance of taking control of the labels that people use to describe you, a powerful message for all middle schoolers.


Waddell’s visit was a powerful addition to the fifth grade curriculum’s study of disability advocacy and their work recognizing, interrupting and dismantling ableism. Every year, fifth graders’ reading of the novel Wonder and other books on the theme of disability is supplemented by authentic, rich conversations with a range of people with disabilities; past guests have included Sam Drazin, guests from the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, activists from Communication First, and Gordon staff member Graham Watkins ’08.

Some fifth grade anti-ableist advocacy from earlier this fall

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