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Fostering personal connections with disability history

By Tonya Villwock, Independent Living Services Coordinator—Branch Offices
As an Independent Living Coordinator, one of my favorite job duties is teaching workshops both in high schools and in the community. Truth be told, I always wanted to make a career teaching. Although my passions led me down a different path in college, I appreciate that I still get to meet new people on a daily basis and teach them new skills.

Disability history is one of my favorite topics to teach in the high schools because our younger generations have no idea about the Disability Rights Movement. It is important for the youth to know about the history of institutionalization, including the overcrowding, lack of funding and dehumanization. How people with disabilities lost their identities while earning pennies as people laughed at them at the circus. How doctors and nurses used the medical model to try to “cure” people with disabilities rather than giving them independence to have successful lives. How lonely and misunderstood someone with a disability might have felt. And once people with disabilities were deinstitutionalized, many discovered that they were unable to go places or do things not only because of physical barriers such as stairs and curbs, but also because of societal barriers such as stereotypes and bad attitudes.

It is easy to talk about disability legislation that has improved the quality of life for people with disabilities because my students have the independence that those laws were meant to provide. They don’t understand the struggle of how life was different for other people with disabilities until I start talking about their parents and grandparents. I often challenge my students to ask their grandparents if they went to school with other students with disabilities even though I know most of them won’t have. Or to ask their parents if students with disabilities were segregated into a different part of their school and not often seen. I talk about the year that their high school building was built and what disability legislation hadn’t been made law yet. How elevators and ramps were a direct result of disability legislation mandating equal access for everyone. I ask the students if they would rather be segregated in one classroom for a whole day or to be mainstreamed with all of the other students. Or if they would rather not go to school every day and have people think that they cannot lead a successful life versus having the opportunity to challenge themselves and have an independent life.
Making that connection with their families and high school opens their eyes to see how life really has changed. I want my students to appreciate the struggle and sacrifices of people with disabilities before them who paved the way for their independence today.