Parents at VOC Conference

Cambridge SE-PAC was well represented at the Visions of Community Conference held by the Federation for Children with Special Needs on March 10. Thanks to scholarships from Cambridge Public Schools and the Federation, a diverse group of CPS families were able to attend this annual conference in downtown Boston.

The conference included three 90-minute breakout sessions focused on early childhood, special education, learning disabilities, and challenging behavior. In addition to workshops in spoken English, closed captioning, ASL and language translation were available and a subgroup of workshops were presented in Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, and Haitian Creole. The conference also included two stirring Keynote Addresses.

Tom Sannicandro, Director of UMass Boston’s Institute for Community Inclusion, spoke about the tendency of schools and other community institutions to expect less for individuals with disabilities when it comes to fully participating in education, career, and community life.

Think DifferentlyOne focus of the ICI’s work is advocating for businesses and organizations to include individuals with disabilities in their recruitment and hiring. Not only is this the right thing to do, he argued–it will also lead to better outcomes. 

For example, he described an ICI Board Meeting where a Director who has Down Syndrome emphasized the importance of using plain language, “so that everyone will understand what we are talking about in our advocacy.”  In this way, embracing diverse abilities and neurology yields a more inclusive and well-considered end result.

Citing the “high hurdle of lowered expectations,” he noted that too often conversations about the futures of students with disabilities do not include a discussion of college. Today, in addition to community college and 4-year universities, increasing numbers of higher education institutions are developing Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Programs (ICEs) and other means for providing a college experience to students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These certificate programs offer valuable training for entering the workforce while enabling students to experience college life.

According to Sannicandro, “Too often, conversations about children with disabilities do not include discussion of college–but our children are no different than any other children. We need to hold our communities, our schools, school administrators to a higher standard.”

To his audience of special educators, administrators, and special education families, Sannicandro expressed empathy for how difficult is can be to advocate for a child with a disability.

He stated, “Education  is a civil right. It is our responsibility to make sure that all of our students are prepared for adult life. Yet, sometimes parents ask, did I go too far? Did I ask for too much? I understand my community is strapped for cash — should I stop pushing?”

Disability Rights are Civil Rights

He paused, allowing the audience to answer with a resounding, “No!”

Then he continued, “The reason the answer is no is not just because of the child in front of you. It’s because we are fighting for every child in our community.”

The second keynote presenter offered a living testimony to the power of full inclusion. Melissa Joy Reilly, a powerful self-advocate and Special Olympian, is a graduate of Acton-Boxborough High School and the Transition Program of Middlesex Community College. A staffer for Massachusetts State Senator Jamie Eldridge, Melissa began by describing her varied interests, hobbies, likes and dislikes. Then, she said:


I am pretty much a regular girl who just happens to have Down Syndrome. But you know what? I am also a lucky girl. I grew up in a great family, in a great town with great schools. Way back when I started school, inclusion was just beginning. My parents tell me some great people like Lou Brown, Martha Florist, Sue buckley and our own Ann Howard gave them good advice about supporting me in school. They and many others had a vision that inclusion was going to make life better for everybody.

They opened the eyes of many teachers and special educators. How lucky was that?

For me, inclusion was normal. So, all the way from Kindergarten through high school, I was part of the regular education classes – except for math. I love school. Even that big bus. (I think you know what I mean). Now because of inclusion, all people with disabilities are getting a better education and are getting better jobs.

Many years later, I was told that inclusion was not exactly normal. It was not exactly an easy ride. There were many bumps, but my parents had help. They would be forever grateful for Rich Robinson’s advice. And to Tom Sannicandro, for getting us through a legal mess.

By the way, I do know that having an extra chromosome also comes with some extra challenges. But, I have learned out to deal. But, for the most part, I am just a girl who is more alike than different.

And that is why, after high school, just like my classmates, I wanted to go to college too. Live away from home. And then, maybe get a dream job. Well, living away did not happen. Because I went to Middlesex Community College. I graduated from their transition program with a certificate in office support. And guess what? I did get a dream job.

I am working here in Boston at the State House. I am an office aide for Senator Eldridge. I just love my job. And I just love going to work. My co-workers are all super nice and I have the best boss ever.

Along with pursuing her career, Riley volunteers with a food pantry and serves on the Board of Special Olympics. Riley is an accomplished Special Olympian herself, and won silver medals in skiing at the International games in Nagano and in Pyong-chang. She is also a motivational speaker who draws on her experience to demonstrate how the limitations society imposes on students with disabilities does not reflect their true potential.

Referencing her participation in the MA Down Syndrome Congress “Your Next Star” campaign, Melissa ended her presentation with a promise that inclusion can work. She said, “Dreaming and hoping for a bigger and more interesting life can become a reality. Today, each one of us in our own way has the opportunity to reach for the stars.”

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