Nicole DeClouette, associate professor of special education created a GC1Y class called “Representations of Ability and Disability” several years ago to give exposure to first-year students who require the skill of working with people with physical and intellectual disabilities.
The class focuses on stories about disability, with film as a major component, and teaches students to look at, critique and analyze the different representations. Students focus on whether the particular media analyzed is putting positive or negative messages out to the community.
“If the media examined portrays negative messages, we want [students] to resist those and reposition them in a way that is more positive,” DeClouette said. “If they are positive then we want to highlight them and support them.”
Beyond the classroom, students get real-life experience working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) at The Creative Enrichment Center (CEC). The CEC was created with a grant that gives students the opportunity to engage with individuals with I/DD, educating students on abilities of disability.
DeClouette’s GC1Y students participate in a minimum of eight hours working with adults with disabilities. They can do this through CEC events such as tailgating and music therapy.
DeClouette said that some of her students are hesitant if they have never worked with an individual with I/DD before and are afraid of possibly saying something incorrect. However, this worry is typically alleviated after uniting the student and individuals.
“Once they [GC1Y students] meet them, talk to and engage with them, all of that falls away, and students realize that they have very similar interests and experiences and are able to have fun together,” DeClouette said.
Barbara Coleman, executive director of the CEC plays a huge role in advocating for the relationship between GC students and the CEC.
“We want to educate students [that] we and individuals with I/DD are more alike than different, changing your mindset one student at a time, hopefully to make a generation of change,” Coleman said.
Coleman and DeClouette agreed that while the stigma of treatment of individuals with I/DD is lessening, it still exists. They notice some people stand away when they are fearful of miscommunication.
“I think the biggest seclusion for people with disabilities is ignorance,” Coleman said. “We fear what we do not know, so we stand away from it.”
DeClouette instructs her students that rather than looking away from these individuals, it is ideal to introduce yourself, and say hello, and explore the possibility of the individual with I/DD opening up about themselves.
“We teach our little kids to look away, and then they grow up continuing to look away,” DeClouette said.
Coleman said that she has a high retention rate of students who continue to volunteer for the LEC/CEC after taking DeClouette’s GC1Y class.
Coleman shared a personal story about an individual she ran into while hauling items into the GIVE Center who stopped her and shared the impact the GC1Y class had on him. Even as senior, he asked about the individuals he worked with in the “Representations of Ability and Disability” class.
Amy Mathis, an individual with Down syndrome, said she enjoys the semesterly field day of fun and lit up when asked about her favorite events.
“I like playing games outside, and Bocce Ball is my favorite, as well as the pie in the face, and I got to put a pie in Kevin’s face.”
Amy was recently proposed to at church by her now fiancé Kevin, who also has Down syndrome, a cherished moment that DeClouette’s students and the community will never forget.
“[The students] had tears coming down their faces when witnessing the proposal,” DeClouette said.
Students in the GC1Y class and volunteers all over the community get to share some of the most special moments with the individuals with I/DD.
“You guys [students] bring us that youth and important ideas, and it is a snowball effect,” Coleman said. “We are like one big village, and I could not be more appreciative. We are all a family. We laugh together, we pray together and we cry together. Anyone is welcome in this family.”
Photos by Lexie Baker | Staff Photographer