By DIANE C. LORE — Advance Education Columnist — April 27, 2014
Kenny Tobin is a Special Olympian who can bench press 245 pounds and swim competitively, and he has the medals to prove it. But Ralph Greene doesn’t see a Special Olympian, he simply sees Kenny as an athlete.
While Ralph is glad that Kenny has a place to compete, he wonders “if an athlete is competing at a higher level, why shouldn’t he compete among his peers.” Although people with disabilities on rare occasions have made it into the Olympics, many more are held back by a lack of support.
Ralph and Kenny are two of the more than two-dozen Lifestyles for the Disabled clients participating in a partnership with Wagner College students, that’s designed to explore civil liberties and civil rights, along with public stereotypes of the disabled. The idea is to raise sensitivity for the disabled, and “allow students to see the face of human rights through each other’s eyes.”
Through the Wagner-Lifestyles Partnership, the young adults with intellectual disabilities attend class at Wagner’s Grymes Hill campus with students. As part of their classwork, they are working together in teams to develop multi-media projects that explore, what for many, are “real world issues.” Ralph and Kenny’s PowerPoint project, for example, explores the unique challenges that special athletes face competing in conventional sports.
The class is one of Wagner’s “small learning communities” part of the “experiential learning program” for which the college is national known.
“When my colleague, David Gordon, and I conceived of the course, we had in mind a class that combines theory with practice,” said Wagner Professor Cyril Ghosh. “On the one hand, we wanted to teach our students some material broadly related to human rights and civil liberties, and, on the other hand, we also wanted them to understand the scholarship on disability rights and how it relates to the broader conception of rights. To this end, we combined a class on civil liberties and human rights with a class on disability rights.”
Lifestyle clients Daniel Lane and Janet Capano have been boyfriend and girlfriend for four years. The most important issue in their lives is the right to marry. Janet said she’d “love to get married,” but the couples face many obstacles, including the “Marriage Penalty” -- their Social Security benefits will be reduced if they wed, she explained. Wagner students Chris Antonacci and Kelly Glenn worked with Daniel and Janet on a video about the issue. But more than that, they are touched by Daniel and Janet’s story. “Their relationship is really special,” Kelly observed.
For Professor Gordon, that’s the point of his course. “How often do you see people with developmental disabilities having intellectual discussions with people outside their families?” he said. “Our students may see others with disabilities out together at the mall in a group, but when you make a personal connection, it’s hard to just see them as ‘just those people’ again.”
A WIN FOR ALL
On a practical level, it’s a win-win situation. The Lifestyles students have the opportunity to take part in an accredited college class, participating in the same lessons and working collaboratively on the same projects in a college setting. Back at the Lifestyles Education Center in Concord, participants reinforce their learning with a lesson that covers the required material and extended activities that explore topics of interest to the Lifestyles learners, such as President Lyndon Johnson’s initiatives, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
The Wagner students earn college credits and learn about human rights issues directly from people who are most affected. More over, many students have formed bonds that reach beyond the college setting.
“Wagner Lifestyles Partnership Program builds a sense of belonging to their learning community,” according to Lifestyles educator Louise Vallario, “and at times, helps to form friendships, which extend beyond the college semester.”
Elisa Lopez and Dominick Lettieri are preparing a PowerPoint presentation about family and marriage. “Family is important,” said Elisa. Dominick said he’s learned a lot about the needs and wants of the disabled and their views on family. “It doesn’t matter who you are,” he concludes, “you should still be able to have a family.”
Other topics explored in the class multi-media presentations touched on freedom of speech, education for the disabled, medical rights for the disabled, and independent living.
It’s not the first time Wagner has partnered with Lifestyles on campus. Previous classes have explored poetry and creative writing.