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Fifth grade welcomes two disabilities rights advocates

Fifth grade students met this morning with Bob Williams and Lisa Vallado, two advocates for adults with significant disabilities.

The meeting was arranged through Tauna Szymanski, Executive Director & Legal Director of Washington DC nonprofit Communication First and was the culmination of a yearlong study of disability rights in the fifth grade that included a workshop on ableism during January's Beloved Community teach-in.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought new opportunities and new challenges for Mr. Williams, Ms. Vallado and others who use assistive technology to communicate. While there has been an explosion of innovation in the electronic communications field this spring, the pandemic has sharpened the threat of social isolation, and the new strain on government agencies will make it even harder for adults with significant disabilities to access critical resources. Mr Williams elaborates on these challenges in this video, which the fifth graders recently watched.

Students prepared by learning about the advocacy work Mr. Williams and Ms. Vallado have been engaged in, and their questions went straight towards establishing a personal connection with the pair, focusing on the experience of public speaking, their memories of middle school, and practical advice on how to be an effective ally for people who use communication devices.

One theme of the conversation was the difficulty of finding appropriate books about disability that were written by people with disabilities and did not describe their experience in tragic terms. The teachers, and students, gratefully received recommendations - Being Huemann by Judith Heumann,  Ido in Autism Land by Ido Kedar, and Leaders Around Me: Autobiographies of Autistics who Type, Point, and Spell to Communicate edited by Edlyn Vallejo Peña - and left the door open for more suggestions.

The presentations connected directly to issues that come up every day in every Gordon classroom: identity development, justice and advocacy, and the importance of finding one's own personal voice. Students were especially excited to hear about the strike Mr. Williams led when he was thirteen, and one of Ms. Vallado's comments could have come out of Gordon's own mission statement: "Difference does not mean bad. It creates space for learning and growing."

The Online Learning Community has opened up classrooms to many special guests over the past ten weeks; more here and here.



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