Newsline Volume 32, Number 4

Visions of Community 2012

collage of images from Visions of Community 2012

"Let families tell families, and it will work"

On Saturday, March 10, 2012, the Federation for Children with Special Needs hosted its annual Visions of Community conference at the Seaport World Trade Center in Boston. Over 800 parents, children, professionals, presenters, state agency partners, exhibitors, and Federation staff and board members came from all over Massachusetts and New England to spend a day learning, sharing, networking, and enjoying each other's company. For the first time, each attendee was given "networking cards" to facilitate the easy exchange of contact information. Throughout the day, people could be seen filling out and exchanging their networking cards - weaving the threads of communication and collaboration that tie communities together and make them strong.

Opening Session
In the conference's opening remarks, Dr. Richard Robison, Executive Director at the Federation, reminded the audience that 2012 is a landmark year for the Federation and the families it serves. July 17th of this year will mark the fortieth anniversary of Chapter 766, the seminal Massachusetts special education law that revolutionized education in the state and across the nation. After the law was signed, Dr. Robison explained, another problem remained. Families across the state suddenly had rights that many had only dreamed about, yet few knew enough to exercise them. The families and professionals who had pushed for the law offered a solution - "Let families tell families, and it will work," they said. From that idea, the Federation was born. Through it, families have been telling families for nearly 40 years, and it does work!

Keynote Presentations
After his remarks, Dr. Robison introduced two keynote speakers. The first was Mary Watson-Avery, M.S - Coordinator of Professional Development and Training Activities at the Connected Beginnings Training Institute, Wheelock College. Mary is an experienced teacher, administrator, and consultant who is also the parent of a remarkable 15 year-old named Walden. During her address, Mary reflected on her experiences from both sides of the parent/professional fence, and shared a few wise mantras. She pointed out that "parents are usually not in denial" about their children, and cautioned professionals to be wary of over-diagnosing denial in parents. Another mantra was "find your voice" - which means not making apologies for your child, for time spent supporting him/her or meeting with parents, or for his/her behavior. Mary encouraged parents to "be the clearing house of information for [their] children." Parents of children with special needs all learn a lot. They should be ready to save, copy, organize, and share that information with anyone who might benefit from it. She reminded parents how important it is to "surround [themselves] with support." Friends who "get it" can provide emotional support and honest helpful advice. Finally, Mary reminded the audience to "be aware of the ways children tell you what they need." "Walden," she said "has been teaching me since I met him. . . . It's an honor to be his mother."

The second keynote address was given by Dan Habib, director, producer, and cinematographer of the critically acclaimed documentary Including Samuel, and the upcoming film Who Cares About Kelsey? During his travels across the country and around the globe educating people about inclusion, Dan found that one question followed him wherever he went. Dan's son Samuel is physically disabled, and people would always ask: "What about children with emotional and behavioral disabilities?" This question led him to begin doing research, and that research led to work on his upcoming film, Who Cares About Kelsey? Dan summed up the purpose of Who Cares About Kelsey? in a single sentence: "To show innovative educational approaches that help students with emotional and behavioral disabilities succeed, while improving the overall culture and climate of the school." Dan found an ideal setting for his new documentary in Somersworth High School in New Hampshire. Over 4 years since implementing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and a Response to Intervention (RTI) based approach to student behavior, Somersworth saw its dropout rate decline 75%, and its office referrals decline 60%. Once he had found his topic and setting, Dan decided to let the students themselves tell as much of the story as possible, in particular, a Somersworth senior named Kelsey. In a short clip, the audience got a window into Kelsey's life and educational experiences. It can be easy to gloss over statistics that show millions of students struggling with emotional and behavioral disabilities, but when a film like Who Cares About Kelsey? forces us to remember that those statistics represent millions of individual children struggling to make the best out of difficult lives, we can't help but be motivated to support them to the best of our abilities.

State Agency Partners
As in past years, the Federation was honored to have state agency leaders in attendance. Angelo McClain, Commissioner of the MA Department of Children and Families (DCF), Heidi Reed, Commissioner of the MA Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Larry Tummino from the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) and Robert Turillo from the Department of Youth Services represented Health and Human Services Agencies. Sherri Killins, Commissioner of Early Education and Care, Dr. Mitchell Chester of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Education Secretary Paul Reville brought greetings on behalf of the Education Agencies. All thanked the Federation for its commitment to family/professional partnerships and to ensuring families were connected with services and supports.

Community Partnership Awards
2012 Community Partnership AwardsDr. William Henderson, Federation Board Member Emeritus, and Federation Board President Jim Whalen presented Community Partnership Awards to the following individuals in recognition of their "ground level" contributions in our communities and whose, "daily words and actions affect change for individuals with disabilities."

Community Outreach Award
Presented to Juana Espinosa, Francis M. Leahy School, Lawrence, MA. Juana has worked tirelessly to bridge the gaps between the Leahy School and the families who send their children there, many of whom are immigrants with a limited understanding of the English language and United States institutions.

Inclusive Recreation Award
Presented to New England Disabled Sports, Loon Mountain, NH. Volunteer trainers at New England Disabled Sports give over 3000 lessons annually to individuals with a wide range of disabilities, allowing many to participate in outdoor recreation in ways they never thought possible.

Self-Advocacy Award
Presented to Steven Roberts from Andover, MA. Steven is a 26- year-old self advocate with cerebral palsy who has partnered with his local YMCA as well as numerous community leaders to improve access and inclusiveness for people with disabilities. Steven also began a self-advocacy group in his community that now meets monthly and has over a dozen members.

Inclusive Special Education Teacher Award
Presented to Rose John, Lenox Public Schools, Lenox, MA. Rose is a personal aide who exemplifies the very best of her profession. Rose has supported a nine-year-old boy with autism and complex medical needs for the past four years, helping him to make friends, exceed expectations, and fully participate in the life of his school.

Parent Advocacy Award
Presented to Carolyn Kain from Dorchester, MA. Carolyn is the parent of a 12-year-old daughter with significant disabilities. She is also Chair of the Boston Public School (BPS) Special Education Parent Advisory Council. She has testified before the Legislature's Committee on Education, The Boston City Council, and the Boston School Committee advocating for the rights of children with disabilities, and for support for and improvements to special education programs.

Inclusive School Administration Award
Presented to Dr. Thomas Pandiscio, Wachusett Regional School District. In spite of serious budgetary challenges, Dr. Pandiscio has worked in full collaboration with the district's Special Education Parent Advisory Council to develop a range of outstanding new programs for students with special needs. He has implemented a high-quality severe needs/autism program, a high school life skills program, and summer programming; and he is currently developing a disability awareness curriculum for students in grades 3-5 to be piloted this spring.

Video of the Opening Session, as well as several workshop handouts are available on the conference recap page of our Web site.