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Empowering Students Through Disability-Neutral Practices

Y4Y recently caught up with Edie Cusack, Executive Director of the College of Charleston REACH program in South Carolina. An expert in inclusion, Ms. Cusack spoke with Y4Y about the concept of “disability neutrality” and how to approach inclusion with simplicity. Her insights can help out-of-school time professionals support students with disabilities and envision a productive, independent adulthood for every student. [Podcast]

Y4Y: As a subject matter expert on inclusion at the postsecondary level, you can offer a fresh perspective as out-of-school time staff prepare K-12 students with disabilities for lifelong success. We’ve heard you refer to certain educational practices as “disability neutral,” which is such an important and evolved concept. Can you describe what this term means?

EC: Disability neutral means that students are engaged in activities based on their personal interests, not activities that are created separately for people with disabilities. It’s all too common that specialized activities are created for students with disabilities that the students may not have any interest in, such as bowling or bocce. But, because it’s the only option available, students participate. I encourage students to find activities that they have an interest in and sign up — to integrate themselves into regular community activities, clubs, and organizations with the expectation that inclusion will happen. Instead of approaching an organization and asking the question “Will you make an allowance for my student with a disability?,” work on the assumption that inclusion will happen. Out-of-school-time staff can be a resource for individuals and organizations that do not have experience with disability and deny access because of fear of the unknown and a lack of knowledge. Including students in activities that are disability neutral means all students have the same access to opportunities for growth and development. 

Y4Y: Do you see ways that a disability-neutral philosophy toward policy and practice might help out-of-school time programs move more comfortably in the direction of being fully inclusive?

EC: I see many organizations re-creating the wheel. Instead of creating a separate program, work with programs that already exist by teaching how to include, teaching how to avoid ableism and answering questions that people have about disability. Leaders can address the issue, educate, and move on in an inclusive manner. Especially in this time of expanding the definition of diversity, we have the opportunity to challenge our community to see disability not as a sector of the population to be avoided but as an opportunity to include all members of society regardless of any difference.

Y4Y: The intentional design of your program envisions a productive future for students with intellectual disabilities and seeks to prepare these students for bright futures and careers. Do you have thoughts on how out-of-school time K-12 professionals can support students with intellectual disabilities in this way?

EC: Working with a goal of having an independent, productive life after graduation, I encourage everyone to keep an eye on the traditional path of students who do not have disabilities. Have an awareness of what traditional students’ interests, cultures, responsibilities and socialization truly look like. So, for example, when establishing goals for a 14-year-old with a disability, look at what a traditional 14-year-old in today’s society is doing. When creating goals for a 20-year-old, look at what a traditional 20-year-old in today’s society is doing. Allow for students to grow and learn, which includes having the opportunity to make mistakes without the fear of losing freedoms and opportunities. Have an awareness of what role the student is playing within the family. Is the family disability-centered or does the student have a more natural role within the family dynamic? Does the student have responsibilities similar to same-age peers? It’s important for parents and professionals to have an awareness of what the traditional experience is and not rely on memories of their own high school or college years. The world has changed; the social norms around friendships, communication and relationships have changed. It’s important to make sure that the information we’re providing students, especially when it comes to socialization, is relevant to their traditional peers for the students to successfully integrate into social groups. With this knowledge, we know that we are accurately preparing students for full integration with their peers. An example of this, and one of the greatest areas where I see students struggle to integrate into a social peer group, is a lack of knowledge and understanding of social media use. Though students may require direct instruction in appropriate boundaries, safety, and use, students live in a world where the majority of peer interaction involves some participation in social media. For students not to be involved in social media creates a “difference” and a more difficult communication process. 

Y4Y: We’d love to hear about some of your college’s success stories! What sorts of careers have your students pursued?

EC: Because the students in the REACH program have the opportunity to choose any major as their area of concentration, we have a wide variety of careers among our alumni. We have students who are working in preschools, tourism, hospitals, salons and a variety of other settings. Many of our students have chosen to study one area and upon entering the workforce found their skills took them in another direction, which is so typical of all students exiting college. Our goal is to not only provide students with the opportunity to learn and grow, but also to provide them with the skills that they need to live and work in today’s society. Over the past year we have seen our alumni who have been working for years in full-time positions lose jobs because of the pandemic. But these program graduates have the skills necessary to seek out and secure new full-time employment to maintain their independent lives. In addition to successful full-time employment, we also measure our alumni success by looking at their level of involvement in relationships and community engagement. We want our students to not only know how to work and maintain employment, but also to have relationships and well-balanced lives. 

Y4Y: Cutting across industries and organizations, what do you view as the greatest obstacles to building an inclusive culture, and what have your solutions to those obstacles been?

EC: One of the greatest obstacles that I see to building a truly inclusive culture is the ongoing acceptance of discrimination against people with disabilities under the guise of being “kind.” We continue to see people with disabilities voted as “homecoming queen,” though nobody calls them after school or on the weekends just to hang out. We see people hired by companies as greeters who literally fall asleep on the job because they have no responsibilities, when we know that they have values and skills to offer as employees. People still say to me, “Oh, I could never do what you do. You must be such a special person.” I can’t imagine any other marginalized group where it would be socially acceptable to say this. Parents have been fighting the same fight for decades for students to be included in traditional education classes.

Y4Y: Do you have any last words of advice for programs who are ready and willing to build a more inclusive culture but aren’t sure how to make it happen? Or ways to help students and families with the transition from high school to postsecondary education or career paths?

EC: I would say: Get started! So many great initiatives get lost in the planning phase and never come to fruition. Just get started and have students participate wherever they can whenever possible. When I was a teacher, my students started with a regular traditional schedule at the beginning of each school year. I plugged in the special support after the creation of the traditional schedule. In creating the REACH program, I first learned what the traditional student experience was, then added special support. As often as possible, to the maximum extent possible, use traditional systems and traditional supports first. It’s also very important to create a communication system for everyone working in new initiatives. Have the tough conversations. Give people the freedom to express fear, doubt and frustrations. Have a professional come in to answer questions and provide a new viewpoint.

Learn more about programs like the College of Charleston REACH program at ThinkCollege.net

Edie Cusack is an award-winning National Board Certified Teacher who has been advocating for and educating students with intellectual and developmental disabilities for over 30 years. Inclusion and self-determination are the philosophies she incorporates into the REACH Program, a postsecondary certificate program for students with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities at the College of Charleston that she created and developed in 2010. As the program’s executive director, Ms. Cusack continues to break down barriers. Check out her TEDxCharleston talk on postsecondary education.