Visions of Community 2015: “We’ve Only Just Begun”
On Saturday March 7th 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 35 workshops in English. Interpreter services were available for attendees speaking American Sign Language, Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, Somali, Portuguese, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Haitian Creole.
The day began in the amphitheater where Federation Executive Director Rich Robison introduced Special Guests and presided over the Community Partnership Award ceremony. State Representative Tom Sannicandro addressed the crowd, urging them to recognize their crucial role in changing the world for their children. Suzanne Gottlieb, representing newly appointed Commissioner of the Department of Public Health Dr. Monica Bharel, presented the Federation with a citation from the Commissioner recognizing the long history of collaboration between the two agencies. Also offering remarks was Commissioner of the Department of Developmental Services Elin Howe, Commissioner for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Heidi Reed, and Commissioner for the Blind Paul Saner. Representatives from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) included Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston, Director of Special Education Services Marcia Mittnacht, and Director of the Office of Tiered Systems of Support Madeline Levine.
Following the introduction of Special Guests, board certified music therapist and workshop presenter Meredith Pizzi led the crowd in an interactive welcome song to set the tone for the Keynote. Describing the way that whales join in song together as a way of building community, she urged the crowd to join in a symbol melody of “Visions of Community, Gather Us Together,” and add their own interpretations and harmonies. Joining together in song was a perfect segue into the presentation of the Community Partnership Awards, the annual honoring of Massachusetts parents, professionals, self-advocates, and community members who have achieved great things in the fields of Parent Advocacy and Leadership, Inclusive General and Special Education, Inclusive Recreation, and Self-Advocacy. Awardees included Laura Kay, Heidi Stier-Barberio, Dalene Basden, Sara Diaz, Kendra Edmonds, Hailey Manduca, Kathy Tremble, Dr. Julie Hackett, and Darlene Ohlenbusch. Presenting the awards was Federation friend, attorney, and Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts 2014, Rosa Angelica Colon. For more information on this year’s awardees see pages 6-8.
Following the awards, the Federation was proud to present, “We’ve Only Just Begun: How Far We’ve Come in Special Education and How Much Further We Need To Go,” a keynote from two former public school principals known for their innovative approaches to creating whole school inclusive communities. Dr. Joe Petner and Dr. Bill Henderson used music, data, and personal experiences to review the early days of special education and provide strategies and inspiration for furthering inclusion today. Using songs like “We’ve Only Just Begun,” by The Carpenters, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” by The Rolling Stones, and “We Are Family,” by Sister Sledge, Drs. Henderson and Petner reviewed some of the visionaries who have transformed the lives of children with special needs in the years since they started teaching, 1968 and 1967 respectively. Federation founder Martha Ziegler, disability advocates Gunnar and Rosemary Dybwad, Senator Ted Kennedy, and Massachusetts Advocates for Children founder Hubie Jones were some of those mentioned as laying the groundwork for the greater inclusion of children and youth with special needs. Focusing on the importance of respect, high expectations, and the necessary accommodations, they reviewed some of the statistics that show how students with disabilities still trail their non-disabled peers in terms of post-secondary school outcomes. To drive home the importance of parents and schools working together, Dr. Henderson highlighted the experience of his former student Naieer Shaheed. Naieer, now 15 and an accomplished artist, his parents, and two of his former teachers joined Dr. Henderson on stage as he recounted how the IEP team originally decided that Naieer needed a substantially separate placement. Naieer’s mother Donna, whom Dr. Henderson described as “A triple-P…She’s persistent, she’s pleasant, and she’s pushy,” advocated for her son’s inclusion in the general classroom, and worked with Dr. Henderson and his teachers to provide positive behavioral supports so that he could succeed there.
The theme of inclusion and high expectations for youth with disabilities continued throughout the day, with workshops like Federation staff member Becky Rizoli’s “Achieving Dreams,” focusing on her own story of self-determination, and “Becoming a Self-Advocate for a Successful Transition,” a panel of youth self-advocates from Empowering People for Inclusive Communities (EPIC.) The Federation is committed to offering as much programming dedicated to self-advocacy and transition planning for youth as possible in the future. Other workshops popular with attendees included, “Behavioral Management in Developmental Disabilities: Understanding and Managing Challenging Behaviors,” “Treating Phobias in Young Children with Autism Spectrum and Other Developmental Disorders,” “Improving Learning Outcomes for Students Through Sensory Integration Based Occupational Therapy,” “Supporting Inclusive Environments through Relationship Building,” “Special Education Year in Review: Significant Cases, Regulations and Legislation,” “Bring on the Music! Bring on the Fun!” “Latest Developments in Transition: From School to Work to Independence,” “Creating an Inclusive Boston Public Schools,” and “Mental Health in School: Let’s Talk About It!”
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 Early Intervention Parent Leadership Project, Massachusetts Families Organizing for Change, and the Parent/Professional Advocacy League. Over 80 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 staff member Becky Rizoli, and Judith Canty Graves and Carson Graves, as well as a prize drawing in the Exhibit Hall. The children in conference childcare received a visit from the staff music therapists at Roman Music Therapy Services. The therapists made music with children at childcare in the afternoon, fostering a safe and creative space.
Like last 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.
More than 100 Federation staff and volunteers made this year’s conference possible, from childcare workers, to interpreters, to workshop hosts, to everyone who helped set up and clean up. The Federation thanks each and every one of them for their efforts in making the day run smoothly. The true joy of the day remains seeing parents’ faces and watching them connect with and inspire one-another by sharing stories, resources, and support. The next Visions of Community Conference will be held on Saturday March 5, 2016 at the Seaport World Trade Center. Plan now to attend!
The Keynote presentation, Community Partnership Award Ceremony, a selection of workshop presentations, and many more Federation workshops, webinars, and resources are available via the Federation’s website.