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Enriching Advocacy Practices for Classroom Diversity in a Celebratory Disability Film Festival Program

 

Engaging With Diversity in the College Classroom
A National Symposium
November 17-18, 2017
Dillard University
New Orleans, Louisiana

 

Anthony Joseph, Pace University
James Lawler, Pace University

Background

A challenge for the 21st-century classroom is the acceptance of diversity for people with disabilities. Colleges currently contain two million students with disabilities (Martin, 2012). Higher-functioning students with disabilities (e.g., Autism Spectrum Disorders) may not be appreciated enough, and even devalued at lesser levels of inclusion in the classroom, by students without disabilities (Albanesi, & Nusbaum, 2017). Students without disabilities may not be frequently interacting with students with disabilities (Nowicki, & Sandieson, 2002), due to fundamental societal stigma (Lombardi, & Murray, 2011). Students without disabilities may not know enough of intelligences and personalities, or of latent skills, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), of intellectually nimble students with disabilities. The consequence of this lack of knowledge may be the marginalized inclusion of students with disabilities in classroom communities of learners.

How might colleges address a discussion of this lack of knowledge impacting negatively those with disabilities? To address the criticality of disability as diversity (Olkin, 2002) as an argument for inclusion, the authors describe a celebratory disability film festival for changing minimally the perceptions of those without disabilities.

Description of Disability Film Festival

The Celebration of People with Disabilities in Film: Film Festival Marathon is an annual event in the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems of Pace University. The emphasis of the festival is on films of higher-functioning (i.e. less impaired) people with disabilities with innate intelligences and intricate but normal personalities that are distinct from impairments. The films are frequently about millennial people with disabilities with possibilities of potential, such as skills in STEM (Baron-Cohen, 2012), who are impacted by prejudicial problems in schools and in society (Heasley, 2017b). The films do not feature glossy Hollywood people playing people with disabilities, but people with real impairments (Zeitchik, 2017), implying the membership possibilities in society (Uditsky, & Hughson, 2012). The festival screens five to seven films, each presenting an inspirational narrative 9-21 minutes long. Since 2013, the festival has screened 37 films to audiences averaging 129-274 neighborhood participants, including students with and without disabilities, from the Seidenberg School and other institutions. Each of the films is followed by panel discussions of prominent scholars in the field of disability study.

The films are largely licensed and obtained from the best-of-the-best disability media outlets, such as the ReelAbilities Film Festival (www.reelabilities.org) and the Sprout Film Festival (www.gosprout.org) in New York City; they are also produced by students with and without disabilities in the school.

The Celebration of People with Disabilities in Film: Film Festival Marathon is a disability as diversity program sponsored by the Dean of the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems and the Dean for Students of Pace University, with AHRC New York City, a community engagement non-profit organization for helping people with disabilities.

Highlights of Disability Film Festival Program

From 2013 to 2017, the Celebration of People with Disabilities in Film: Film Festival Marathon has highlighted films of people with disabilities in informative narratives involving real-life scenarios, as exemplified in the films below:

  • Finding Fred (*) (**) depicts the fundamental non-acceptance of a contributing family member with a cognitive disability, but is friendly, having intelligence and an intricate personality and living his daily life like people without disabilities;
  • Grocery Store and What Would You Do (**) portrays the non-appreciation and harassment of a dedicated employee with Down Syndrome having high intelligence, who is not respected by busy customers without disabilities;
  • Stutter depicts the non-appreciation and intimidation of a dedicated employee and father with a communication disability, who has high sensitivity, but is not respected by people in a school and students without disabilities;
  • The Commute in a Wheelchair (**) dramatizes the problems of by-stander inattention and municipal non-accommodation of a father with an ambulatory disability needing special services on a subway; and
  • The Interviewer (**) portrays the negative prejudicial problems of non-sensitivity through the story of a person with Down Syndrome having high intelligence and a humorous personality, who is overtly stereotyped by people without disabilities.

(*) Finding Fred was produced by students with disabilities in an outreach program of the authors and was recognized by the Sprout Film Festival in 2013.
(**) These films are available now on www.youtube.com.

In the discussions following the films, moderators addressed the panelists with the following questions, among others:

  • Do you feel that people with disabilities are harassed less or are harassed more with the “r” (i.e. retarded) language by people without disabilities?
  • Do you fell that people with disabilities are more often or are less often ignored by busy people without disabilities?
  • How might you describe the advantages or disadvantages of living in New York City and navigating its services, notably in the subways, with a disability of having a wheelchair? (Rosenberg, 2017)
  • How might parents encourage their students with disabilities to be proud of being different than those without disabilities?
  • How might professors and staff help students with disabilities know that being different than those without disabilities is actually a beautiful thing?

The panel discussions invited audience participation, bringing students with and without disabilities into the conversation. These discussions, and especially the films that inspired them, are enabling the students without disabilities to be increasingly knowledgeable about people with disabilities, which is helpful inasmuch as most of them had not encountered enough of the diversity of this population, nor even knew sufficiently of them (Luscombe, 2017), until they participated in this program.

The films have highlighted the potential of higher-functioning people with disabilities, as portrayed positively (Grandlin, & Panek, 2013, Ross, 2013, and Diament, 2017) to the students without disabilities and to the students with disabilities participating in the program. Those students without disabilities, majoring or not majoring in STEM, are learning to be more receptive to not only people with disabilities but also to peer students with disabilities and prospective students with disabilities graduating from high schools (Heasley, 2017e), a receptivity highlighted in the disability literature (Saito, & Ishiyama, 2005). Those without disabilities are even learning to be advocates for classroom diversity, having expectations higher for intellectually nimble types than they had prior to the film festival.

Finally, those students with disabilities attending and participating in the festival are learning to be proud self-advocates inside and outside the classroom and lab at the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems and Pace University. The Celebration of People with Disabilities in Film: Film Festival Marathon is establishing a platform for influencing perceptions of positivity of those with and without disabilities.

Increased Opportunities from Disability Film Festival

Increased opportunities from the Celebration of People with Disabilities in Film: Film Festival Marathon include the following:

  • Students without disabilities are discovering more about people with disabilities as a classroom diversity opportunity and not as a fearful proposition (Heasley, 2017a);
  • Students without disabilities in the Seidenberg School are discovering more about the intelligences, rather than impairments, of higher-functioning peers and prospective students with disabilities that justify them to be in majors, such as STEM, just as students without disabilities;
  • They are discovering from the program more of the potential skills of students with disabilities that justify them to be in other majors and other occupations;
  • They are recognizing more of the diversity potential of the skills of higher-functioning high school students with disabilities that justify them to be in inclusion programs (e.g., www.thinkcollege.net) at post-secondary institutions (only 11% of high school students with disabilities are now in post-secondary institutions) (Grigal, Hart, & Weir, 2012);
  • Those without disabilities in the Seidenberg School are finding from the program the potential of students with disabilities to contribute not only in the classroom, but especially in “cool” cooperative groups and labs working on interesting learning projects (e.g., robotic and virtual reality systems), which offer great opportunities for promoting identity and sociality (Salisbury, Gallucci, Palombaro, & Peck, 1995);
  • Those with disabilities in the Seidenberg School are learning more about the marketability of their skills in STEM, a further occupational opportunity because of the shortage of skills in STEM in society (Lenox, Jesse, & Woratschek, 2011);
  • Those with or without disabilities in the Seidenberg School are inquiring more and learning more about diversity outreach programs (e.g., Jefferson Award for Public Service) in STEM, particularly programs that help young students enter STEM professions (e.g., Hour of Code in Your Community During Computer Science Education Week);
  • Students are learning to be more motivated in participating in “Pace Makes a Difference Day” diversity programs (e.g., Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ History Month) for other populations of non-STEM students of the university;
  • Students are learning more about the disability film (e.g., www.reelabilities.org and www.gosprout.org) offerings that are positioning those with disabilities for inclusivity in schools and in society (Heasley, 2017c, & Sheehan, 2017); and
  • Though the focus of the Celebration of People with Disabilities in Film: Film Festival Marathon is on students in the School of Computer Science and Information Systems of Pace University, the program is also involving professors and staff in curricular and extra-curricular programs for those students with disabilities, side-by-side with those without disabilities (Milsom, 2017).

These opportunities are reassuring for those without disabilities to be more receptive of those with disabilities in post-secondary institutions, such as Pace University.

Conclusion

The Celebration of People with Disabilities in Film: Film Festival Marathon is cultivating a culture of disability as diversity for people with disabilities. The Film Festival Marathon is currently helping students without disabilities learn the potential of students with disabilities to be in the classrooms of post-secondary institutions. The program is in parallel with the larger body of media being produced today (Heasley, 2017d) that is gradually recognizing the rights of those with disabilities to attend college and university. The Film Festival Marathon is improving the perceptions of students without disabilities in the Seidenberg School as to the rights of those with disabilities to join in curricular and extra-curricular internships and projects in STEM. Those higher-functioning, intellectually nimble students with disabilities are now occupationally underrepresented in STEM, as they are underrepresented in schools of STEM (Barrett, 2017). The Film Festival Marathon is a diversity model for inclusivity initiatives that seek to resolve this underrepresentation. The practices of this program may be, moreover, motivating for professors, staff and students without disabilities to be more responsive to the special needs of those with disabilities.

In conclusion, the Celebration of People with Disabilities in Film: Film Festival Marathon is positioning practices for a pluralistic 21st-century university.

 

 
 

References

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