By: Virginia Ressa
Editor’s Note: Last week, the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence (OCALI) wrote a guest blog about Autism acceptance and shared resources for promoting acceptance. In addition to those resources, OCALI’s premier event, OCALICON, offers nationwide attendees a space to exchange ideas about policies and practices related to people with autism and disabilities. In November, Virginia Ressa wrote about her first experience at OCALICON, and we think this is the perfect time to share her story again.
I always enjoy going to conferences. Spending time with colleagues, discussing content and pedagogy issues and debating the latest concerns always renews my commitment to education. As a social studies teacher, I looked forward to the Ohio Council for the Social Studies conference every year. I looked forward to having lunch with old friends and talking about our shared struggle of making ancient history interesting to seventh-graders. I really enjoyed participating in this conference and similar conferences, like the Ohio Council for Law-Related Education’s Law and Citizenship Conference, each year. I knew people and was comfortable in those settings. But, looking back, I wonder if I was really learning anything new. I heard updates from the Ohio Department of Education, learned about new resources and maybe picked up some ideas on how to teach certain topics. There was a great deal of value in the renewal and re-energization those conferences provided, but was I really stretching myself? Did these conferences really challenge me to grow professionally?
My last blog post was about attending the Future Ready Ohio conference. I chose to write about that conference because I got so much out of it. Maybe it was because the content was new to me, and I didn’t know what to expect. I ventured out of my comfort zone and, as you might expect, I learned a great deal. This month, I attended all three days of OCALICON. Do you know about OCALICON? Some quick background: Here in Ohio, we are lucky to have a nationally recognized organization that works to improve achievement for students with disabilities. OCALI (formerly known as the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence) holds an annual conference that attracts more than 2,000 participants from across the country and even internationally. Since 2007, participants have come from all 50 states and 17 countries.
This year, the Department’s Office for Exceptional Children partnered with OCALI to hold its Special Education Leadership Institute in conjunction with OCALICON. It was a great pairing and allowed Ohio’s attendees to participate in some Ohio-specific events and access all OCALICON’s rich content. Participation was up to about 2,900 attendees! I was one of the new attendees, and I felt the mild tension of being in new territory.
When I was a content area teacher, OCALICON wasn’t on my radar. None of the special education conferences were. Yet, all my classes included students with disabilities. I had their individualized education programs (IEPs) and knew what kinds of accommodations I was supposed to make. That seemed like enough. I never realized how little I knew about students with different disabilities and how to support them in accessing grade-level content. By attending conferences only related to my content area, I was limiting my learning and my ability to improve my practice and meet the needs of all the learners in my classroom. At OCALICON, I found myself outside of my comfort zone — and it was great. There were a few familiar faces and session topics, but most were new to me.
Of this year’s 2,900 attendees, only 60 were general education teachers. This number grew slightly from last year’s 38. Still, the majority of attendees are special education teachers or intervention specialists and special education directors. I’m beginning to think we are approaching conferences in the wrong way. I’m a social studies teacher and know a lot about history because it is something I’m interested in. I read books and watch movies about history all the time. What I don’t know enough about is how to support students with multiple disabilities. What I don’t know enough about is how to use technology to provide students with intellectual disabilities access to grade-level content. About 80 percent of our students with disabilities can, with accommodations, access grade-level content. This would be much more doable if our intervention specialists were not the only ones who knew how to do it.
So, what have I learned? I’ve learned I should attend conferences that focus on content I don’t know a lot about. This is one of those “aha!” moments when I realize I’ve been looking at something the wrong way for years. I wouldn’t sign up for a course on something I already know, so why keep going to the same conferences? I know our content area conferences are valuable for networking and refueling, but I would argue that attending conferences outside of our comfort zones has a great deal of benefit as well. Conversely, for special education teachers and intervention specialists, that would mean attending a few social studies and mathematics conferences.
My challenge to you is to open your mind to a new, authentic learning experience by finding and attending a different kind of conference this year. For instance, you might consider attending the next Ohio Council for Exceptional Children conference. Without a doubt, you also will want to save the date for OCALICON 2019.
Virginia Ressa is an education program specialist at the Ohio Department of Education, where she focuses on helping schools and educators meet the needs of diverse learners through professional learning. You can learn more about Virginia by clicking here.
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By: Guest Blogger
April is Autism Awareness Month, and Ohio has a longstanding history of promoting awareness about autism spectrum disorder. Throughout the month, you’ll likely see hundreds of blogs, articles, commercials and social media posts that share information, facts and stories about autism. While sharing this information is important and has significantly contributed to society becoming more aware of autism, we must continue to push ourselves toward a culture of acceptance and inclusivity.
Awareness vs. Acceptance
Acceptance is about taking conscious action and shifting from not only seeing and recognizing that autism exists, but seeking to listen and learn and then adapting our perspectives and behaviors. What does that look like? Understanding and being aware of autism means knowing that autism is a developmental disability that impacts each person differently. This commonly includes a wide variety of unique strengths and challenges in the areas of behavioral, sensory processing, social and emotional regulation. You also may be aware that students with autism may separate themselves from a group of peers or exhibit repetitive behaviors from time to time. But do you know what triggers certain responses from individuals or how to help a student based on his or her needs? Just knowing the facts will not necessarily lead to acceptance or creating inclusive and supportive environments in our schools, communities and relationships.
Acceptance exemplifies the Platinum Rule — treating others the way they want to be treated — which accounts for accommodating the feelings of others and accepting our differences. By moving toward acceptance, we can inspire new ideas that motivate us to continue to ensure students with disabilities can live their best lives for their whole lives. While progress is being made in schools across Ohio and the country, we know there is more to do — more doors that need opened and more perspectives and approaches that need shifted.
What Educators Can Do to Promote Acceptance
1. Share resources with colleagues and families. The Many Faces of Autism is a free, online video designed to dispel common misconceptions through the experiences of people with autism.
2. Gain insights from people with autism. Encourage people or students with autism to share their various perspectives on what is important for them to be part of the community or school. Or, invite the parents of students with autism to speak at a professional learning session with your staff. Many times, hearing varying perspectives firsthand is powerful and eye-opening.
3. Dispel labels. Encourage inclusivity by having staff and students address a person by his or her name, not a label. This is equally important when support teams are talking about a student who isn't in their presence.
4. Continue to listen, learn and share. The more information and knowledge you can learn and intentionally share about autism spectrum disorder, the better.
At OCALI, our mission is to inspire change and promote access to opportunities for people with disabilities. Over the years, we have been committed to working hard to promote and embrace a culture of awareness and acceptance — with our staff and those we serve around Ohio. While we have made significant progress, we have more work to do, and we continue to explore and learn new ways of listening, understanding and modeling.
As educators, parents and family members, we ALL play a role in inspiring the change we wish to see. Throughout the month of April, we encourage you to seek opportunities that promote acceptance in your own schools and communities. Let’s learn, grow and build a culture of acceptance together.
For additional resources, visit the Autism Center and OCALI’s Lending Library. You also can check out the following resources:
This post was developed by the team of experts at OCALI, under the leadership of Executive Director Shawn Henry. OCALI, which is based in Ohio, is a recognized global leader in creating and connecting resources and relationships to ensure people with disabilities have opportunities to live their best lives for their whole lives.
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