Impact Feature Issue on Postsecondary Education and Students with Intellectual, Developmental and Other Disabilities

The Power of Inclusion: Personal Reflections on Creating Change

Author(s)

Shea Howell is Professor of Communication at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan

What then would be our reason for instituting a program for students whose goal is not degree completion? The participation of students with cognitive disabilities on our campus indicates that we have a broader view of our institution as a center for learning... The liberal arts tradition maintains that higher education is more than preparation for a specific career or profession. It is about the continual quest for deeper understanding, richer life experiences, and personal growth; in short, the overused term – life-long learning. If we accept this as the role of higher education, then we must believe that this is our mission toward all individuals.– Virinder Moudgil, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, Oakland University, delivered at Options Graduation Ceremony, April 19, 2010

Micah Fialka-Feldman graduated from Oakland University in the spring of 2010, completing six years in a program designed to provide a fully inclusive university experience to young people with intellectual disabilities. With the support of Micah, his family, and visionary educational professionals, Oakland University opened its doors for full inclusion. In the course of this experience I was able to observe the power of inclusion to transform institutions and individuals.

I taught Micah in two classes during his final semester. He was in a public speaking class and I directed his capstone course. A year earlier Micah also took my class Persuasion and Social Movements. I was involved in his course selection throughout his academic career. I was able to watch Micah grow as an individual and to observe the impact he had on other students.

My first classroom experience with Micah was in Persuasion and Social Movements. This class fit his strengths. His family members are well-known activists and he has spent a lifetime surrounded by people engaged in movements for change. Micah has a keen interest in politics; he was among the most-informed students in the class and participated fully in discussions. During the class he was the first to have seen Milk, a film about gay activist Harvey Milk of San Francisco. He encouraged classmates to see it and talked about how important it was for people to understand the struggles individuals faced. This kind of contribution was typical of Micah's participation, offering resources and insights to others.

Grades in that course depended on papers discussing some aspect of social movements. The only modification I made was to allow Micah to substitute video interviews for written papers. This did require giving him some clear direction in how to frame questions and approach issues. Generally, it was helpful for me to develop a few ideas and present them to Micah so that he could chose among them. He followed the same assignment schedule and handed in his interviews along with everyone else's papers. He worked with another student on their final presentation, analyzing his effort to overturn a university ruling preventing him from living in the dorm.

The second class, Public Speaking, also drew on Micah's strengths. During high school, he spoke to groups about people with disabilities. By the time he came to the university he had established a record of speaking events. Micah not only spoke on campus, but traveled locally and nationally to make presentations to gatherings large and small. Depending primarily on Power PointTM presentations to provide structure, Micah was comfortable as a speaker. In a class with mostly freshman and sophomores he was among the most natural, organized, and effective speakers. Micah's main challenge was to move beyond material that he had presented and to explore new ideas. Here, too, the primary strategy I used was to develop some options for Micah so that he could select among ideas. While it was often difficult for him to generate new topic areas, once he grasped a direction he was able to move forward.

His final speech presentation in the course, on the use of the word "retarded," required research and organizational skills that challenged him. Working with his parents and another student, Micah crafted and delivered an excellent presentation, earning one of the highest grades in the class. More importantly, the speech touched off a discussion with students saying how much they appreciated Micah's perspective and how he made them think about things they had never considered. The experience of inviting people to think more deeply and to rethink old ideas are important gifts of inclusion to the campus community.

For the capstone course, Micah worked with Sarah Vore, a student doing a capstone in writing. Together, they produced a film about Micah's experiences at Oakland. Sarah and Micah met with Micah's family at their initiation and with Micah's permission. This proved to be an important support in developing the project. Micah's parents helped Sarah understand how to work with him to get his best ideas. They encouraged Sarah to not only help him frame questions for interviews, but to be willing to challenge him. Having high expectations and not settling for less were important for their success in the project. Sarah wrote in her capstone paper about the experience:

Having never given much thought to higher education for this select group of individuals, my experiences with Micah have completely opened my eyes to the academic and social enrichment capabilities of those who are classified as "intellectually disabled." (p. 3)

Earlier Sarah described her first meeting with Micah and how she was able to confront her own stereotypes:

I felt both a sense of intrigue and enthusiasm as we easily made conversation. It was during that moment that my prior myths associated with intellectual disabilities were dispelled. (p. 1)

Sarah's reaction to Micah was not unusual. By his senior year he was among the most recognized students on the campus. In chronicling the highlights of the graduating class, the Oakland Post, the student newspaper, listed ground-breaking for new buildings, a 9% tuition hike, a faculty strike, and "After covering his story for over a year, Micah Fialka-Feldman won his personal battle to live on campus..." ("Return the favor," 2010). This is perhaps my greatest lesson from this experience with Micah and efforts at inclusion. It is not only important for the growth of the individual, but it radically challenges and changes the stereotypes of others.

Even in the earliest days of the program, the potential for altering thinking was clear. In a book chapter co-written by Marshall Kitchens, the director of the Writing Center, and one of his students, Sandra Dukhie, about tutoring Micah on the use of assistive technologies, they noted the benefit to Micah's increased confidence, but went on to say:

A primary benefit for Sandra was the sense of social awareness because of the project. Sandra describes working with Micah as "a wonderful experience." Over the weeks that they worked together, she says, she acquired a greater appreciation for individuals with disabilities: "I now have a better understanding of some of the frustrations encountered by many individuals with cognitive impairments." At the same time, Micah not only benefited from the experience in terms of communicative growth, but also from the social interaction, citing the social nature of the sessions as the most beneficial aspect. (p. 214)

Micah's visible presence on campus resonated with other students with disabilities. In a moving article in the Oakland Post, Shawn Minnix (2010) wrote:

I thought I would take a minute to congratulate all of the seniors on their upcoming graduation. There is one person that I wish to acknowledge separately, and that would be Micah Fialka-Feldman, or as we just know him Micah. Micah has a cognitive disability, and is set to get his certificate at the end of this semester, finishing his odyssey and completing his education. I look at Micah and what he has accomplished and smile. He inspires us all to do greater things. I should know. In some ways, I used to BE Micah. I was placed in a school for the emotionally impaired when I was 6 years old, and I stayed there until I was 14 and it was hell from the start. I was told by my own principal that I would never finish high school.

The full inclusion of Micah and other students required professors who were willing to think creatively about what would enable students to contribute and learn in classes. The single most important source of these strategies emerged from meetings with Micah, with his administrative support team of professionals, and with his family. Out of these meetings we were able to make adaptations that enriched the class experience for everyone. We recognized no one strategy fit all students or all classes, but through open communication and attention to the goal of full participation, we were able to find ways to meet the needs of all students. Adapting classes to meet the needs of students with cognitive disabilities took minimal effort. As a community we grew tremendously because of it.

References

  • Kitchens, M., & Duhkie, S. (n.d.). Chapter 9: Speech-to-text: Peer tutoring, technology, and students with cognitive impairments. In R. Day Babcock & S. Daniels (Eds.), Writing centers and disability (pp. 193–222).

  • Minnix, S. (2010). Underdogs succeed at Oakland. Oakland Post. Retrieved from http://oaklandpostonline.com/2010/04/13/perspectives/underdogs-succeed-at-oakland/

  • Moudgil, V. (2010, April). Unpublished remarks delivered upon the completion of the Options program, Oakland University.

  • Staff Editorial. (2010). Return the favor, rise up; If you stay or go, improve what was left for you: Staff editorial. Oakland Post. Retrieved from http://oaklandpostonline.com/2010/04/13/editorial/return-the-favor-rise-up-if-you-stay-or-go-improve-what-was-left-for-you/

  • Vore, S. (2010). Micah Fialka-Feldman. In Unpublished senior capstone project (WRT 491 Internship), Oakland University. Rochester, MI.