Expanding Liberal Education for Inclusion of Outreach Projects of Social Justice

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 22–23, 2013

University of Miami
Miami, Florida


A liberal education is critical for the development of citizenship. Frequently, institutions of higher learning focus on disciplines for students discrete from ever increasing issues in the community. Full social justice for bullied and generally harassed individuals of the community, such as disabled populations, is not often an immersive subject in the learning of millennial students. An organized outreach project of social justice if further integrated into the learning furnishes participatory social responsibility of students. Social justice for marginalized individuals of the community is an enriching feature for a reconfigured liberal education.

Disability harassment is a form of deliberate bullying based on or because of a disability that is effecting an environment hostile to individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities (I/DD). Individuals having diagnoses of disabilities, such as autism spectrum, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome and spina bifida, are at a significantly higher risk for harassment that limits their opportunities in society than those without disabilities (NCWD, 2013). There are currently 49-54 million individuals that have disabilities (Riley II, 2005), of which 6 million individuals have developmental and intellectual disabilities (Association of University Centers on Disabilities, 2013), in the United States. Young adults with disabilities experiencing bullying are indicated in the literature to have increased risk for inter-personal issues from lower pride and self-esteem from the harassment (PACER, 2013). This problem in human rights offers the potential of a meaningful project of social justice for students without disabilities.

In this paper, the author introduces an outreach project of social justice for individuals with disabilities at AHRC New York City, a community partner with Pace University. The history of harassment and marginalization of individuals with disabilities is not often known by millennial students without disabilities. The outreach project in this paper involves liberal arts students in partnership with the individuals at the facilities of the university, in producing short films of social justice celebrating the potential of each of the individuals as persons. These films form a foundation for the students to be advocates for individuals with disabilities and influencers for anti-bullying harassment programs in society. The students reflectively review this service of social justice as a rewarding feature of liberal education at the university.

Outreach Project of Social Justice

The outreach project is the core of a community engagement course at Pace University. The project is one of autobiographical filming stories of higher-functioning high school students and graduated young teenagers with developmental and intellectual disabilities engaged one-on-one by the students of the university. The students help the high school students and young teenagers in the narrative process of storytelling. The students of the university integrate a mix of graphic, photographic and textual techniques, movie-making, musical (Tietze, 2012) and soundtrack techniques, simple I-movie, media player or I-pad technologies, or other studio technologies (Bers, 2010) furnished by the non-profit partner or the university. The outcome of the project is the recording and sharing of expressions of hopes and interests (Holburn, Gordon, & Vietze, 2007) of the high school students and the teenagers with disabilities through the storytelling tools.

The filming process of the project is focused not on the disabilities but on the interests of the high school students and teenagers as individual persons. The project of storytelling is helpful to them in the grit and the improvement of their self-identities and in their societal transition and visioning (Skouge, Kelly, Roberts, Leake, & Stodden, 2007). The storytelling is further helpful to them in incremental motivation as persons of potential – “what I am proud of” – in minimal mitigation of harassment and bullying. To the millennial students of the university without disabilities, the project of storytelling is helpful in learning about a harassed and marginalized population with meaningful potential in society (Danforth, 2001). The undergraduate students may be inspired to pursue proper representation and respect of individuals with disabilities in film media and in society.

The misrepresentation of individuals with disabilities is evident in mainstream film media, as they are frequently depicted by identifiable impairments distanced from individuals without disabilities (Disability Planet, 2013). Inherent in the misrepresentation of individuals with disabilities is that they are devoid from intricate but normal personalities, as persons distinct from other people in a social setting (Disability Planet, 2013). Many in the public, including students, learn about individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities through this media, such as Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, and in “r” (retarded) terminology such as Tropic Thunder, instead of through interactions with them, as on the outreach project. This negativism is precluding recognition of the rights of individuals with disabilities to be equal with individuals without disabilities. Those with disabilities have often responded with disability film media as a model of positive potential for those with disabilities in society, as initiated on the outreach project of the students of the university.

The initiation of the outreach project involved 63 millennial students of the university, 35 in the fall 2012 semester and 28 in the spring 2013 semester, with the non-profit partner. Most of the undergraduate students were one-on-one paired by the author-instructor to the high school students and teenagers at the beginning of the semesters. Several of the undergraduate students were dually paired as partners to the high school students and teenagers. Most of the students of the university without disabilities were not experienced with individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities prior to the project. The students were guided by the instructor in a conceptualized filming process for person-centered storytelling through Digital Storytelling in the Classroom: New Media Pathways to Literacy, Learning and Creativity (Ohler, 2013), but, except for filming guidelines, they were not limited by step-by-step instructions that would have stifled them.

The project required 3 hours in each of the semesters each Tuesday, and selectively on Friday, for 14 weeks with the high school students and teenagers at the university. The students of the university were required to blog on the progress of the project on an e-Portfolio system by mid-night each Tuesday. They were further required to post a Mid-Term Reflection Journal and a Final Reflection Journal on the system on the 7th and 14th weeks and to read Miracle Boy Grows Up: How the Disability Rights Revolution Saved My Sanity (Mattlin, 2012) as the semester text. Their progress on the project of storytelling was reviewed by the instructor weekly. Their projects were shared with the families of the high school students and the teenagers and with the non-profit partner staff on the 14th week, in order to privately show the storytelling and to selectively submit several to disability film festival media in New York City, such as the publicized Sprout Film Festival.

Perceptions of Students from Outreach Project

From a checklist pre-course instrument survey, a mid-course and mid-project review of the blogs and mid-term reflection journal, and a post-course review of the blogs and final reflection journal, the learning and service were reviewed by the author-instructor as to the impacts of the outreach project. The learning and service of the millennial students of the university were reviewed from the extent of engagement impacts, measured by importance, performance and satisfaction perceptions of these students; and by the extent of advocacy impacts, measured by self-efficacy and sociality perceptions of these students, following content methodology of reviewing student writings (Rama, Ravenscroft, Wolcott, & Zlotkowski, 2000) on a six-point Likert-like rating scale of 5 – very high in impacts to 1 – very low in impacts, with 0 – no impacts. The progression of students of the university was moreover reviewed by observation of the instructor throughout the semesters.

The findings from the data found that engagement and advocacy of all of the students of the university improved progressively from means of 1.51 and 1.75 in the pre-course survey to 3.54 and 3.37 in the mid-course and mid-project review to 4.51 and 4.13 in the post-course review (Lawler & Joseph, 2013), furnishing positive sensitivity in the learning and service of social justice, as indicated for all – female and male – students of the university.

Interestingly, students of the university without disabilities not experienced or knowledgeable with those with disabilities improved in the engagement and advocacy from means of 1.00 and 1.00 in in the pre-course survey to 4.00 and 4.00 in the post-course review; and for those of the university not experienced in service of social justice, or volunteering for marginalized populations, they improved progressively from means of 0.00 and 1.00 in the pre-course survey to 4.00 and 4.00 in the post-course review (Lawler & Joseph, 2013).

The paper will attempt reviewing the impacts of the outreach project on the high school students and teenagers with disabilities, a more complex study, in 2014, though preliminary evidence from the partner staff is notably positive, as provided in prior related research studies (Saito & Ishiyama, 2005).

Project Summary

The outreach project affected a difference in the lives of others and heighted the positive sensitivity of the millennial students of the university without disabilities to the high school students and graduated teenagers with disabilities. The sensitivity was often indicated in their reflections on the semesters. They reported the following from their service:

“…led me to meet new people [and] to shape their future through the project … great le arning”,

“…opened my eyes to [individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities] through the [filming] storytelling technique … unbelievable … impacted my views”; and

“… project [of storytelling] gave me the power to help [an individual with disability] to be great … not to be harassed by others … will never tease them” (Lawler & Joseph, 2013).

The impacts of the project were further heighted in the likelihood of potential remedial response of the students of the university to harassment and bullying problems of those with developmental and intellectual disabilities – encouraging as most “bystanders’ without disabilities do nothing (ARC of Pennsylvania, 2013). This project for disability rights involved meaningful service in social justice for the undergraduate students of the university.


The project in this paper benefits instructors considering enhancing the curricula of liberal arts for improved outreach. The creation of a pedagogy of human rights demands a project beyond the location of a university (Shackford-Bradley, 2013). The project at Pace University is involving responsibilities of students with a marginalized and mostly unnoticed population (Shapiro, 1994). Students without disabilities are learning about those with disabilities. These students are learning to be proactive in disability rights.

The project is crucial in the field of human rights. The frequency if not the severity of harassment of those with disabilities is evident in the literature (Diament, 2013). The frequency of perpetrators in the media is especially evident in universality on the Web (Bazelon, 2013). The mere misrepresentations of those with developmental and intellectual disabilities in the mainstream media are a problem. The students of the university are learning to be proactive for proper realities and representations of those with disabilities in society.

In conclusion, the project in this paper is an experience in learning involving millennial students on an often neglected problem of social justice in the United States. This project is moreover an experience in learning with results for liberal arts instructors, inasmuch as the students increase involvement in political action and public service to those with disabilities in society. This increases the liberal arts role in service to society. The project presented in this paper is continuing with the non-profit partner in forthcoming semesters at the university. This project is essential to liberal arts education in Pace University.


The author acknowledges funding grants of approximately $15,000 in 2011 – 2013 from the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) of Pace University for diverse storytelling technologies on the project presented in this paper.


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Spring 2014: Reinventing Liberal Education