Recently, I attended Catalyst University in Kalamazoo. It was quite a day and left me with so much to ponder. One of the presenters, Tania Luna, Co-founder of Surprise Industries, really spoke to me as the Executive Director of The Arcadia Institute. She invited the audience at Catalyst University to stop worrying about what are the right answers and to wonder about what are the right questions. As we work with people with disabilities to support them to be included in the community, we are constantly living with uncertainty and surprise. We know that we do not have all of the answers and often are helping people in the community unlearn what they think they know about working with people with disabilities.
When we approach people with disabilities, they and their family members are often uncertain that they will be welcomed and supported in new situations. We have to help them explore new possibilities. Sometimes when they try new activities, it does not work – and that’s OK. However, when we find the just right fit – it is a surprise and a delight. People discover that their gifts and talents are valued. For example, we have a young woman who loves to read. She began volunteering for SLD Read in Kalamazoo. She likes to organize and file – her contributions to the organization are important for the work of SLD Reads to help students gain the ability to read and write.
On the other hand, organizations sometimes worry that they are not equipped to support people with disabilities to participate. They are uncertain that they have the knowledge and skills to make accommodations that will make it possible for people with disabilities to be successful. In our society, many people have the notion that only people with special training in disability can provide appropriate accommodations. When we provide coaching to organizations to support a person with disabilities, they are usually surprised that they can do it! More often than not, people who are not professionals in disability are more creative and open to trying new ways to support people with disabilities. An example of this is a young man who is deaf and needs an interpreter or iPod to communicate started volunteering at the Kalamazoo Nature Center. He began helping with some clerical work. The Nature Center staff learned that he is very good at drawing. So they started having him draw outlines of animals that could be used in educational packets for school children to color. He became a valued part of the organization.
On March 24, 2016, Connect Kalamazoo will host the 7th Annual Building a Community of Belonging Forum of The Arcadia Institute and Its Partners. Join us in conversations about how to welcome, support and respect people with disabilities throughout our community.