Written by: Maureen Charron-Shea, speech-language pathologist in South Duxbury, Vermont
A few years ago, my friend Maura told me a story. That story planted a seed that changed my life.
Maura, whose son has Down syndrome, told me how heartbreaking it is when she hears the word “retard” used as a putdown. I thought about that and I knew things had to change. Around the same time, I discovered service-learning, an instructional approach through which students research and address real issues by applying skills and knowledge from their school curriculum. This approach enables students of varying abilities to work and learn together in meaningful contexts. It also gives students’ learning relevance. So, I gathered a group of high school students and asked:
- What if students with disabilities told their stories?
- Would they be treated differently?
- Would they be better understood?
The students decided to create a film to raise awareness about the challenges facing individuals with disabilities. The result was an award-winning documentary titled Speak Out for Understanding.
The film centers on four students who told their own stories for the purpose of bringing about change. It explains their challenges as students identified with Attention Deficit Disorder, Dyslexia, Down syndrome, and other disabilities. Problems with discrimination, stereotyping, difficulty learning, and social isolation are brought to light and students suggest actions to overcome these challenges.
Speak Out has been credited with starting a movement at our high school. Students are writing books, creating another documentary, composing rap music, and sharing their stories publicly and with pride. Thank goodness times have changed!
Disability awareness has now become my passion. My hope is for this project to be replicated to benefit and empower others. I see Speak Out as more than a learning experience and using communication skills to raise awareness. It’s about citizenship and engaging our community in meaningful dialogue. It’s about advocacy and speaking out for yourself and others. It’s about social justice and promoting a culture of tolerance and equity. Yet, at its heart, Speak Out for Understanding is about the power of individual stories to bring about change.
Maureen Charron-Shea, MS, CCC-SLP, speech-language pathologist at Harwood Union Middle/High School in South Duxbury, Vermont; and her students, winners of the 2009 State Farm National Service-Learning Excellence Award, have presented around New England, at the National Service-Learning Conference, and received awards and accolades for their creative service-learning work. For more information or to obtain a copy of Speak out for Understanding, check out: