Visions of Community 2014

“It Starts with You”:
Visions of Community 2014 Conference

By Roisin Foley, Executive Assistant – FCSN


Massachusetts state officials in attendance to meet parents at Visions of Community 2014,
Front Row (l to r): Marcia Mittnacht, Elin Howe, Rich Robison.
Back Row (l to r): Ron Benham, Michael Yudin, Mitchell Chester, Alan Ingram, Cliff Robinson, and Heidi Reed


“Children with special needs are children first”
– Michael K. Yudin, Asst. Secretaryfor the Office of Special Educationand Rehabilitative Services

On Saturday March 8th the Federation welcomed over 900 attendees to the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston for its annual day-long Visions of Community conference for parents of children with special needs and the professionals who serve them. Participants from around Massachusetts attended workshops, perused the exhibitor’s hall, visited resource tables, and networked with other parents and professionals. This year, the Federation was able to offer workshops in Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Somali during each of the three sessions in addition to 30 workshops in English. Interpreter services were available for attendees speaking American Sign Language, Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, Somali, Portuguese, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

The day began in the amphitheater where Federation Executive Director Rich Robison introduced Special Guests and presided over the Community Partnership Award ceremony. Guests included State Rep Tom Sannicandro, Commissioner of the Department of Developmental Services Elin Howe, Commissioner for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Heidi Reed, Deputy Commissioner at the Department of Mental Health Cliff Robinson, and Department of Public Health Director, Bureau of Family Health and Nutrition Ron Benham. Representatives from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) included Commissioner Dr. Mitchell Chester, Deputy Commissioner Alan Ingram, Director of Special Education Services Marcia Mittnacht, and Director of the Office of Tiered Systems of Support Madeline Levine.

Community Partnership Awards recognized achievements by Massachusetts parents and professionals in Parent Advocacy and Leadership, Inclusive General and Special Education, Inclusive Recreation, and Self-Advocacy. Awardees included Amber Bobnar (founder of, Iraudhis Baez (Federation Parent Consultant for Latino Families), Karen Donovan (Ipswich SEPAC member), Phyllis Jaillet (Wachusett Regional School District Teacher), Kate Ahern (Easter Seals Assistive Technology Specialist), Regina Snowden (Executive Director of Partners for Youth with Disabilities, Inc.), and Nicole Tarzia (Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts 2013). Read more about this year’s awardees

The Federation was proud to present a two-part keynote headed off by Michael Yudin, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) at the Department of Education. Assistant Secretary Yudin’s address focused on fostering high expectations for students with disabilities. Highlighting the core OSERS values of Inclusion, Equity, and Opportunity, Yudin maintained that the goal of full inclusion for youth with disabilities in school and society, “…is more than a moral imperative, this is an economic imperative.” Mr. Yudin’s passionate speech was data-driven but firmly asserted that “Children with special needs are children first,” a sentiment that resonated with conference attendees. He affirmed what parents know from experience, that “…research shows that kids with disabilities do better when they are held to high standards and have access to the general curriculum.” He also made mention of research on how teachers’ expectations directly impact student performance, as well as strategies for inclusion like Principles of Universal Design and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. Ultimately, Mr. Yudin told the crowd, “We have to change the culture of expectations, and it starts with you. It starts with our parents.”

The second half of the keynote explicitly connected the national strategy with the everyday experiences of parents and children. Delivered by the Executive Director of Parent to Parent Virginia, Dana Yarbrough, and her daughter Brooke using a PowerPoint presentation and assistive iPad technology, the presentation urged parents to raise their expectations and create a vision for their child. Each Yarbrough told the story of pursuing a “Typical life” for Brooke, from a 2 pound premature infant with physical, intellectual, and sensory disabilities to a 19 year-old High School graduate and small business owner. A “typical life is…different for each of us,” said Dana, but for youth with disabilities it can be defined by the realities of the service system. She focused on her belief that families must develop a vision for their child’s future early, stick to it, and not expect that the service system will create a life for a child. She recounted telling IEP teams that Brooke would one day own her own business and being met with the claim that she was “in denial” about Brooke’s reality. The Yarbroughs looked for ways not to say “No,” but “How can we make this possible?” Brooke added, “I live a life of my choosing, not one dictated by the service system.”

The theme of high expectations for youth with disabilities continued in Session One with “Successful Transitions: Achieving Dreams Panel Discussion,” a workshop moderated by Assistant Secretary Yudin featuring the Yarbroughs, Federation employee Becky Rizoli, Nicole Tarzia, and Laura Surprenant. Each young woman presented on her experiences navigating the special education system and transitioning to an independent life. Other attendee favorite workshops included an interactive conversation with DESE staff entitled, “Improving the IEP Form: What Works? What Doesn’t,” an exploration of the emotional journey and self-care needs of parenting a child with special needs, “Changed by a Child: The Emotional Journey,” “Helping Traumatized Children Learn: Creating and Advocating for Trauma-Sensitive Schools,” “Behavioral Management in Developmental Disabilities: A Guide to Understanding and Managing Challenging Behaviors,” “The Affordable Care Act: What’s Changing for Massachusetts Families?,” “Helping Young Children with Anxiety,” and “Working Together: Bringing Positive Change to Your School District.”

Between workshop sessions, attendees browsed resource tables from all of the Federation programs, as well as an extensive display of regional, statewide, and national resources from Family TIES of Massachusetts. The 84 Exhibitors included advocacy services, support organizations, financial planning, schools and colleges, hospitals, therapy practices, adaptive technology and recreation options, books, and arts and crafts. In addition to exhibitors, there were book signings by Federation founder Martha Ziegler, Federation staff members Becky Rizoli and Ashley Coates, and Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves.

Both the exhibit hall and the children in conference childcare were excited to receive a visit from the Hearts & Noses Hospital Clown Troupe. The clowns played with children at childcare for over an hour, creating a fun, safe, and empowering space for children and working hard not to overwhelm those less comfortable with clowns.

This year, attendees who turned in their Conference Evaluation Forms received a copy of “A Family Guide to Transition Services in Massachusetts,” produced jointly by the Federation and the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission. Available in Spanish and English, the Guide can also be found on the Federation website.

View video of our keynote speakers, or download handouts from many of the workshops at