By Joy Perrino Choquette
When was the last time you saw someone with a disability on the big screen, playing a leading role in the latest Hollywood blockbuster? Featured in a fashion magazine? Or the main character of a popular television show?
The United States has come a long way since the exclusion of children with disabilities in traditional classrooms was the norm. With the inception of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), federal law mandated that children with disabilities be given the same education as children without disabilities. IDEA also requires that children with disabilities be given free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment possible. Additionally, the rights of children with disabilities and their families must be secured and protected, according to the IDEA law.
For years there has been a separation between those with and without disabilities. And while some of the distinctions have been positive—improvements such as parking spaces for the handicapped, fully accessible bathrooms, access to public spaces through the use of ramps and wider entryways, Braille signs, and more—others have not been.
Still, there is a difference between mandating that disabled individuals are treated a certain way and that they receive the same services as their non-disabled counterparts and true acceptance of individuals with disabilities. For first grade teacher, Maggie Doben, learning empathy for and acceptance of individuals with disabilities has become the focus of her career in education.
Doben, who currently teaches at the Cambridge Friends School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, began a project with her first grade students called Labeled Disabled shortly after beginning her teaching career 11 years ago. Doben states that she was deeply influenced by a teaching mentor in her early elementary education years. She was also deeply affected by two parents at one particular school where she worked who were handicapped. Doben states that she started the program slowly, by bringing guests with disabilities into the classroom. “Once I saw how effective it was and how inspirational it was, I just kept going,” says Doben.
From there, the program grew and expanded, culminating in Doben’s creation of a 48-minute film, aptly titled, Labeled Disabled. The first grade teacher, who is also a photographer and cinematographer, states that the project took a little over a year to shoot. The film features clips of the Labeled Disabled program in action within Doben’s classroom. It highlights the students and their changing reactions to individuals with disabilities throughout the program. The highlight of the film, according to Doben, is the interview section with some of her previous first grade students, now in middle school. These teens give honest assessments of what they learned through Labeled Disabled and how the information they were exposed to within the coursework has remained with them since.
One of the most intriguing parts of the film says Doben, is the evolution of children’s minds. From initially seeing disabilities through stereotypical eyes, students come to understand and accept that though individuals with disabilities are different in some ways, they are very much the same as individuals without disabilities in others. Throughout the film, children are seen discussing and discarding previous generalizations of individuals with disabilities, as they come to understand instead the similarities which they all have in common with individuals who have disabilities. “This was an amazing journey for my students, but it was also an amazing journey for me,” says Doben. “You literally can see how their vocabulary changes, how their compassion deepens.” Another rewarding part of the program is the satisfaction that guests who visit the classroom seem to experience. People with disabilities, Doben says, often feel somewhat isolated from society, that there is no place for them. “It’s very rewarding for me to have visitors come to the classroom and feel acknowledged, valued, and complimented. I think they leave feeling that ‘This was the best day of my week,’” says Doben.
Of course the program has had its share of challenges as well. Doben sites educational policy as one of the largest. It’s sometimes difficult to demonstrate and prove that this type of education is valuable and important, not just an add-on, says Doben. In addition, there has been some family resistance. Doben recounts issues she experienced at a school where she previously worked. Some parents accused her of trying to scare students, of potentially traumatizing them by exposing them to individuals with disabilities. In another instance, a colleague made a reference to the “circus show” that she was bringing into her classroom. Doben was understandably upset by the comments. “It’s personally what forced me to leave that school,” says Doben. At the Cambridge Friends School, a distinct part of the institution’s mission is to talk about and challenge bias. Doben states that when she was interviewed for her position at the Cambridge Friends School, the discussion of her program was more a point of attraction for administration. “Rather than a debate it became something that they embraced,” says Doben.
Still, even with the full support of administration, some parents were still concerned about the Labeled Disabled project. In order to make parents more comfortable and to help them understand what the program is really about, Doben created a mandatory “Parent Education Night”. With the full support of administration, parents are required to attend the educational session before Labeled Disabled curriculum is introduced into the classroom. This night shows parents what types of information their children will be exposed to throughout the program. The educational session has made a positive difference in the way that parents perceive the project.
What is perhaps most inspiring about the project, are the positive effects of the Labeled Disabled which last much longer than the time children spend in Doben’s classroom. Doben, who went to visit some of the middle school students who had attended her first grade class, states that the cumulative effect of the entire program really became visible to her during that visit. She met the students, bringing along her lights and video camera to gather clips for the film. She was moved by what she heard from them about the program and how it had influenced their lives. “The stuff that they said,” says Doben. “I really couldn’t have paid them to be more eloquent. It was clear to me that there really was purpose and a life lesson involved in this.”
The Labeled Disabled film premiered in May of 2008. Since that time, it has been shown in several educational and public locations throughout the state. Doben hopes that with time, the film will grow outside of the Massachussets border. The film is currently available online at www.labeleddisabledfilm.org.
Doben has plans to expand the program more fully as well, and is hoping at some point to have the time to sit down and create a curriculum which other teachers could use in their own classrooms. Of course, between her teaching career, photography, cinematography projects and the Labeled Disabled work, Doben is understandably busy. Still, she believes that projects like Labeled Disabled will continue to grow in popularity and in importance in the coming years.
“. . . society is changing,” says Doben. “There’s a lot more on TV and in magazines and in children’s books about characters with disabilities.” Doben points out that there may also be more people in society with disabilities as war veterans return to the United States. “Children need to know how to grow up in a society where they learn how to interact with people with disabilities,” says Doben. Labeled Disabled is certainly on the right path to helping children in that area.