A decade ago, I was told by an administrator in my son’s school district that a disabilities awareness program could never be facilitated at the middle school level because, as he put it, “Those kids are too self-involved and won’t be receptive to learning about their disabled peers. Such programs are better left to grade schools” Well, I was never one for stopping at the first “no”.

With the challenges of a fully included autistic son at middle school, I believed a comprehensive program had to be created.. I believe that now as much as I did then.

Why can’t young teens learn about disabled children I wondered? I was sure they could and would want to learn about differences. My faith in youth became my mission. I decided I would bring an awareness program to my son’s middle school despite the warning.

In early fall, 2001, I approached the PTSA President and asked to have my idea for an Abilities Awareness program placed on the agenda at the next meeting. She agreed. Upon hearing my proposal, the members of the PTSA unanimously voted to have the school host the program. This was an important start, and I recall how delighted I was – and relieved – that they were so receptive. Though I still had an uphill battle – I was left to create the p program on my own.

It was not so long ago that children with disabilities were segregated from regular campuses and classrooms. Even with all of the progress we’ve made in the last two decades, there still exists tremendous prejudice and resistance to inclusion in the mainstream. Though we have made tremendous strides in providing a free and appropriate public education for kids with special needs, many of the greater issues are still often ignored, underfunded, and dismissed. Kids with special needs continue to be segregated by typical peers and astonishingly, the system that supports them: read: educators and administrators.

While the students my son attended school with were generally respectful to him, they had never really included Taylor in their activities. They made fun of the weaker kids too. Back then, I wanted to help to bridge that gap. I wanted to teach the typical peers who did not fully appreciate my son’s place in their classrooms about kids like Taylor. I also wanted to help the school’s 100+ other special needs children to better fit in – to be understood.

Abilities Awareness took an entire year to plan. I wanted the students, administration and staff to have ownership of the program – and for that, they needed to be involved from the start. It was easy to enroll the kids. Not so easy to enroll admin and staff. I met with students twice per month to teach them about disabilities and to lend my vision to their own creative ideas. Occasionally PTA members or staff would pop their heads in to see what we were up to. I worked collaboratively with the kids I had enrolled to be a part of the program (ASB and other student unions) to design and promote the program, which culminated in a year-end, two day facilitation of “Abilities Awareness” for the school’s entire student body – comprised of 1200 students!

Abilities Awareness was a hands-on educational program that worked to inform and educate “typical” kids about the special needs of their disabled peers. The week prior to the two-day program, we presented students with written exercises to prepare them for what was coming next. During the program itself, we gave them an orientation in the gym (during their P.E. periods), and then had them segue 12 “sensory stations” which included wheel chair obstacle courses (gross motor), blindfold baseball (sight), backwards mirror writing (perception and hand-to-eye coordination), binoculars used backwards while walking a curved line (perceptual), mittens used while attempting buttons and zippers (fine motor), and other fun activities. I wanted the kids not just to hear about disabilities, but to experience them firsthand, and that, they did.

I was so proud that year when we won the 2002 Phoebe Apperson Hearst National PTA Award for Excellence in Education – the highest PTA honor in the country for “best in program.” We won both State and National awards. But better than that was the program’s impact. The knowledge 1200 kids gained during the event was a sight to behold. I believe we lived up to the vision of the PTA founders’ ideals that the power of individual action, and work beyond the accepted barriers of the day, and our action, can (and has) literally change the world

As for that administrator, to this day he has no idea what an inspiration he was to me. As they say, never say never!

The award, and $2,000 check helped this program to survive beyond all expectations. This year, Redwood Middle School in Thousand Oaks, California will celebrate the 10th anniversary of Abilities Awareness. Although I have been out of the loop, and others have carried the mission and values of the program forward, I will always be reminded to never say never!

Footnote: I recently opened a new bank account. Upon seeing my business card which reads “Normal People Scare Me,” the teller asked, “What is that?” I told him I made films in autism. He said “Oh, I know about that. I learned a lot in my middle school about autism.” I sheepishly asked him what school he went to. He told me it was Redwood Middle School. I smiled. He went on to say “I don’t remember much about middle school except for this program I went through to teach me about special needs. I remember learning to be more accepting of people who are different.” I was now nearly on a cloud. I said “Yea, that was Abilities Awareness, a program I created for this very moment in time.”

Keri Bowers is the founder of PAUSE4kids a non-profit organization in Thousand Oaks, California. Founder of Normal Films, she has created 3 documentary films, including Normal People Scare Me, The Sandwich Kid and Arts. Co-creator of The Art of Autism, Keri is an international speaker, author, filmmaker and advocate. Her son Taylor, now 23, lives in independent living supported by the ARC of California. Her son, Jace , now 17, continues to volunteer in special needs and siblings issues. www.the-art-of-autism.com and www.normalfilms.com