Bringing the ADA to the Classroom in URI's Honors Colloquium

By Sara Porcaro | Nov 4, 2020
URI, Rhode Island, Disabilities, ADA, Honor's Program, Education, IDD

This autumn, our students have had a strange start to the semester. Hybrid learning, a late start, wearing masks and staying distant--it's all changed the educational landscape we're used to. However, if anything hasn't changed, it's the commitment of educators to impactful and engaging lesson plans. That's why this year, on the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Dr. Anita Jacobson and Dr. Tiffani Kisler are bringing a discussion on I/DD history and theory to the University of Rhode Island's Honors Colloquium course--a topic that affords honors students in their sophomore and junior years the opportunity to learn about another facet of social activism.
Dr. Kisler and Dr. Jacobson are two professors with URI that have also been a part of the President's Commission for People with Disabilities for six years. With Dr. Kisler's experience as a graduate faculty member specializing in couple and family therapy, she trains clinicians in the developmental lifespan for individuals of all abilities, and has since been interested in I/DD activism. Likewise, Dr. Jacobson's 22 years of experience as a pharmacist in Rhode Island, especially Eleanor Slater Hospital, and caring for her eighteen year old son who is nonverbal, have also given her professional and personal ties to I/DD activism. These two professors have been carefully curating accessible resources, as well as coordinating guest speakers for their course since its proposal was accepted in 2018--though due to the pandemic, some quick changes had to be made.
"Many of these speakers were supposed to visit in person, but because of the pandemic, we had to change so many arrangements," says Dr. Kisler. "However, now the public can join in on our weekly Zoom speaker events outside of the regular class schedule by visiting our website."
On the topic of course materials, Dr. Jacobson notes, "We wanted to be mindful of people's access to resources in this class, so there's no textbook. Instead, students listen to podcasts, read online journals and articles, watch Netflix documentaries, and more so they all have a way to get content on this topic into their hands."
"We're hoping to challenge expectations with this course and help students see disability in a different light."
Naturally, this course centers on discussions of race, gender, sexuality, and other areas to inform students on the way diversity impacts the world they live in. In the case of this year's course, the syllabus describes it as one that focuses "on how views and expectations of those with disabilities can better reflect the state of possibilities available today, steering away from what cannot be done toward what can be accomplished"--a shift in ideology to drive I/DD activism forward in the modern age. With so many different sources for discussion, including professionals from local agencies like Looking Upwards, Inc., BHDDH, and Perspectives to come speak with students on their work in the field, it's a unique opportunity for students to get outside their comfort zone and discover more about the world they live in.
"The Honors Colloquium lets students engage more deeply with these topics and see them in a different point of view," says Dr. Kisler. "We're hoping to challenge expectations with this course and help students see disability in a different light."
And it's certainly a great topic to encourage discussion, as the virtual classroom is constantly full of activity during the weekly meet-ups. Students are enthusiastic about their discussions, as they have the opportunity to learn from a variety of individuals in the I/DD community directly through this diverse spread of resources and have spirited discussion about how to continue progressing forward in the face of so many controversial topics on health and disability--especially timely topics like how the medical community allocates resources in a crisis like our current pandemic. Aside from those lively discussions, the students also must complete assignments and projects, like the mid-semester project on the ADA's 30 Year Celebration.
"This group always comes prepared to talk and share their opinions," notes Dr. Jacobson. "They're very thoughtful students, and since we have so many students from completely different majors, it's interesting to see how they connect this topic to other disciplines."
Already the students are making great strides in their course, and as the semester continues, we know they'll keep the enthusiasm high. Among the many important topics on social diversity, it's fitting that this year's Honors Colloquium is one to celebrate a milestone year of the ADA--and one to remind the next generation of professionals that there's still plenty of work to be done in I/DD activism across many disciplines. With students as bright and motivated as those at URI looking to further their understanding of our society, and with great professors like Dr. Kisler and Dr. Jacobson to help them find the materials they need to succeed, it's bound to be a successful rest of the semester!


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