Impact Feature Issue on Supporting the Social Well-Being of Children and Youth with Disabilities

A Dream Come True


Ashley Voran is Editorial Assistant at Beach Center on Disability, University of Kansas, Lawrence

Susan B. Palmer is Research Professor at the Beach Center on Disability

Dreams do come true. At least for Owen Phariss, a senior from Free State High School located in Lawrence, Kansas. In October of 2010, Owen was crowned Homecoming King, with a little help from his friends. A previous school practice had prevented students with disabilities from being included on the ballot, unbeknown to most students and administrators at the school. After uncovering this practice, four of Owen's friends took it upon themselves to reverse it. They immediately began obtaining the signatures of others on a petition during the day, and after school approached the administration to ask to have the practice changed. Owen was thrilled at the nomination and showed much gratitude toward his friends after attaining the role as "king" of Free State High School: "I felt proud of my friends. I felt excited, special. All because of my friends." "When he won, it just made my heart feel whole. He deserved it more than anything," says senior Bailey Knowlton, a long-time friend of Owen's. Not only was Owen awarded king, but for the first time in Free State High School's history, a tie for queen resulted in two Homecoming queens matching up with Owen as king. "The whole stadium came alive that night. I was overwhelmed and delighted," recalls Owen's mother, Nancy Holmes.

None of this would have been possible without the assistance of four of Owen's friends who followed the motto, "When you don't agree with the way things are, challenge it." Owen's friends Bailey Knowlton, Audrey Hughes, Aly Frydman, and Connor Caldwell took the initiative to change the status quo. The school administration was very receptive to this change and started the process to amend the ballot.

Bailey uncovered the discriminatory practice when she went to nominate Owen for the Homecoming court ballot and, much to her dismay, saw that Owen's name was missing. "I just knew it wasn't right," she says. The Homecoming committee reformatted the Homecoming ballot to include the names of Owen and several other students with disabilities. "If we hadn't done this now, it might have never been changed," says Bailey. In many cases such as this, awareness of possible discrimination is what is necessary to make such a change. Bailey and friends provided this awareness and the results were extremely positive throughout the school and community.

Owen and Bailey are long-time friends who played together in their neighborhood during kindergarten. They were in some of the same classes throughout elementary, junior high, and senior high school. The Lawrence schools have included students with identified disabilities consistently over the years, though parental advocacy for inclusion supports and services has sometimes been needed. According to Owen's mother, Nancy, "The students have always been very supportive of individuals with disabilities and the teachers also do as much as they can to promote social skills for their students." Thus, it was strange to Bailey and her friends that when they got the Homecoming ballot, it did not contain Owen's name, and these students took action to change that.

When asked to comment on the practice of excluding students with disabilities from the ballot, Principal Ed West says that no one had questioned this practice that had been in place for some time until this group of students took action. Assistant Principal Lisa Boyd comments that they were not at all surprised by the overwhelming response from the students: "We have developed and continue to build wonderful relationships between regular education students and special needs students through our interpersonal service learning class," says Ms. Boyd. This semester-long course, "Interpersonal Skills Service Learning," is taught by general educator Andrew Nussbaum and special educator Darrel Andrew and team. It's designed to create sustainable relationships between students with and without disabilities as they work together to carry out a Community Impact Project. "It is about building positive relationships with each other to create a more compassionate community," says Mr. Nussbaum. Through participation in the course, students can gain the interpersonal skills that empower them to improve the community in which they live. Two times per month the class has Action and Awareness Seminars in which students work on skills ranging from problem solving and coping with adversity, to leadership and confidence – skills they demonstrated in this situation. Mr. Nussbaum believes that the students' initiative will have positive effects throughout Free State High School: "For me personally, it is not about whether Owen won king or not. In my perspective, he and his fellow peers have already won because they have learned about how they can make a lasting difference in each other's lives and the community in which they live."

Principal West also notes that this occasion caused the administration to discuss whether any other practices might be in place that perpetuate the same type of injustice. When asked if this sparked additional dialog with colleagues, he says, "We spent some time discussing the matter among all of the administrators across the district. The matter provided a good example of questioning everything and aligning our practices to match our guiding principles." He also adds, "To me, the process and the outcome is about much more than one individual winning a Homecoming contest. I believe this event can serve as a marker in terms of where we are as a school. It gives me great satisfaction to reflect on the role of the student body throughout this event, and I am proud of the progress we have made."

Life changed for Owen at Free State High School after the coronation in October. "The very next day all the kids were saying, 'You're the king.' Everybody knew Owen. Folks in the community recognized him and congratulated him," says Nancy. "After he won, people wanted to get to know him better," says Bailey. Owen says that as a result of being included in the school's social life in this way, "I have made even more friends. People are more accepting, at least kids from other schools who didn't know me. Everyone likes me." Owen and his friends see this accomplishment as one giant leap for social inclusion of students with disabilities.

Life for Owen has not always been easy. "From the day he was born I was advocating for Owen to be included with his general education peers. It was a struggle," says Nancy. Early in life he learned to sign and was essentially nonverbal until he was 4-years-old. During elementary school, he was included with his general education peers, but in upper elementary grades "behavior issues" started occurring, which presented more challenges. The constant "shadowing" of Owen by paraprofessionals during junior high school made things less than ideal for his social inclusion. Nancy believes he just needed to be accepted as his own person. As a senior in high school, Owen was included in as many general education activities as possible. "The teachers at Free State are very focused and have really wanted Owen to succeed," says Nancy.

As for the future, Owen aspires to be a chef and work in the restaurant industry. He graduated in May 2011 with his same-age peers, and this fall he will be attending Lawrence Public Schools C-Tran Services, a transition support service that is located off-campus. C-Tran is a person-centered, community-based support that consists of a group of young adults who need help transitioning to the community at-large. At C-Tran, students are encouraged to express interest in various "clubs" that are formed. They can set goals to learn to ride public transportation, do additional job sampling or be supported on a volunteer or paid employment position, and be involved in social activities of their choice within the community. A great deal of flexibility within the services meets the needs of participants, depending on the level of independence or supports needed to become more independent. Budgeting, purchasing food, cooking, and eating together on occasion are also things students learn at C-Tran.

As Owen walked across the stage in May, he ended his stay at Free State High School. But he will no doubt remember that October Homecoming game for the rest of his life. He says, "I want to be king forever." And his mother, Nancy, says, "It was the happiest day of my life."