Beyond the Classroom: Wyoming Institute for Disabilities Partners with Local Arts Center (WY UCEDD)

November 7, 2016

An innovative collaboration proved to be a powerful example of the benefits of bringing learners of all abilities into a single classroom setting. The Wyoming Institute for Disabilities (WIND), Wyoming's UCEDD, piloted Disability Advocacy and Justice through the Disability Studies Minor, a core component of the pre-service education and training at WIND. Disability Advocacy and Justice started in the spring of 2016, bringing together five students from the Cooper Center for Creative Arts in Laramie and five students from the University of Wyoming's Disability Studies Minor to explore disability rights, services and policies, and to collaboratively identify and research current disability advocacy issues of concern to class members.

The Disability Studies Minor at the University of Wyoming attracts a diverse group of students from programs across the campus, but it is primarily composed of pre-service students from the College of Health Sciences and the College of Education. The Cooper Center for Creative Arts is a Laramie organization which brings programs in music, theatre, dance and art to individuals with developmental disabilities. This was the first semester-long course developed collaboratively between the Disability Studies Minor and the Cooper Center. The students from both programs engaged in course readings and discussions of critical issues, including rights restrictions, early advocacy movements, independent living and guardianships. Additional topics that inspired meaningful and at times emotional conversations included friendships, dating and bullying. The collaboration concluded with the students coming together in small groups to produce advocacy videos as their final course projects where they addressed anti-bullying, the use of respectful language and challenging low expectations of people with developmental disabilities.

"We envisioned a university environment where more community members were welcomed and involved," said Michelle Jarman, Associate Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Wyoming and co-instructor.  "Disability Advocacy and Justice was the result of many conversations addressing how we could develop stronger partnerships between service providers, community members and the university. We recognized that we had the opportunity to build valuable peer relationships with Cooper Center students and disability studies students in an academic setting."

Kayc DeMaranville, Director of the Cooper Center for Creative Arts and co-instructor, noted, "The idea that students with very diverse learning styles could work together in such a successful way was inspiring." Added DeMaranville, "I found myself enthralled with the mix of ideas and philosophies coupled with personal experiences for all students. There has been no better philosophy-building, professional development opportunity for me in my career."

Cooper Center student, Eleanor, agreed. "I liked being on campus and being in class. The work was hard, but I felt successful and would love the opportunity to take more classes."

In addition to the collaborative projects in Disability Advocacy and Justice, students from the Cooper Center were invited to participate in other related campus lectures and symposia. The University of Wyoming's annual Shepard Symposium on Social Justice is an internationally recognized venue for campus conversations regarding social justice issues.  Michelle Jarman was a co-chair for the 2016 Shepard Symposium. "It was wonderful to have students from the Cooper Center on campus for the Shepard Symposium.  Seeing them come into the Symposium - along with the other students from the minor - felt like a moment at the heart of disability studies.  We talk all the time about making campus more accessible, but having the Cooper Center students attend this event was a great example of that," observed Jarman.

While the course began with many unknowns regarding expectations and outcomes, by the end of the semester it was evident that Disability Advocacy and Justice was a deeply transformative experience for all involved. The collaborative environment created an opportunity for the Disability Studies Minor students to learn from the people who are in the disability community and whose voices are not always heard in a typical classroom setting.  Ashley Kersey, a disability studies student, summarized, "The discussions we had in class truly helped me grow as an advocate by opening my eyes to others' experiences, wants and needs for their lives as members of society."

For more information about the Disability Studies Minor and the Wyoming Institute for Disabilities, please visit http://www.uwyo.edu/wind/disabilitystudies/. To learn more about this collaboration, contact Michelle Jarman at mjarman@uwyo.edu. For more information on the Cooper Center for Creative Arts, visit http://www.arkcreativearts.org.

Photo caption: Photo features Disability Advocacy and Justice class members and instructors sitting and standing in two rows, in front of a brick building, smiling on a sunny day.  Standing in back row: Eleanor, Shawna, Ashley, Anya, Michelle, Ashley, Kira, Mark Sitting in front row: Carissa, Tori, Annie, Caroline, Kayc