One of the first things I learned back in 2008 when I first became involved with people who have special needs was that we should refer to people with disabilities as people first – like people with special needs, not special needs people – and that those of us who don’t have disabilities should be referred to as “typical.” After spending seven years working with our teenage volunteers, I can tell you that there’s nothing typical about any of them.
When I first got the idea to try teaching dance to kids with special needs, I knew that the normal teacher/pupil ratio wouldn’t work. I didn’t want to limit my program to one type of disability; I wanted any child who wanted to participate in the arts to join. But that meant being prepared for children with a wide variety of challenges – verbal, physical, social – and in the beginning, we only had two teachers…Hayley Henderson and me. Even though I limited class size to 10 students, I knew that with an age range of 3-12 and with disabilities like Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy, mitochondrial disease, spina bifida and others, we were gonna need some help.
Hayley turned to the kids in the Huntsville High School Show Choir, led by her mother and Choral Department Director Sherry Smith, for help. She rounded up 9 kids – and I threw in Austin to get us up to an even 10 – and we had our first crop of typical students to serve as program volunteers. I had no idea back then that relationships between students, volunteers and the families of both would form outside the walls of Merrimack Hall. Once they’ve graduated, our volunteers return to visit us on school breaks, take their former students out for lunch and visit them each time they’re home from college. Our program is proof that both sides benefit when we are all integrated together.
I’m amazed…and grateful…when, year after year, teenagers come to us from all over North Alabama. These typical teens are already exceptional – all of them are high-achieving, budding philanthropists with too many talents to list – and the friendships they share with our students are, well, they’re pretty special.
We honored 9 seniors at our Spring Recital – 5 typical kids and 4 kids with special needs. In the first half of this short video, the volunteers say, in their own words, what our students have meant to them; the second half is me, talking about our students. For anyone who wonders how “typical” kids could benefit from having kids with special needs in their classrooms, and in their lives, this video says it all.
Luckily, we will still have our Project UP seniors with us next year but our volunteers will be off to college – every one of them having received prestigious scholarships. Halle Ragan, Emily Dean, Peyton Davis, John Chilton and Bailey Kinnard, we will miss you so much! These typical teens, and the 50 who have already graduated, took our first little dance class and have turned it into something I never could have imagined. Anytime I try to thank any of them for their service, they tell me that they’re the ones who should be thanking us…for lessons learned, for joy received and for the privilege of friendship with kids who have special needs.