Speak Up Speak Out: An Inclusive Speech Event Making a Difference (MS UCEDD)

By: Dr. Jerry R. Alliston

September 25, 2017

Reading the Jellybean Festival article in the Fall 2016 Rostrum inspired me as a speech and debate father to connect my daughter's forensic team experience with my work's inclusive AmeriCorps program. For the past five years, I have lived the life of a speech and debate parent, jokingly saying that I am my daughter's assistant. I do judge for her school forensics team at Sacred Heart High School, a private Catholic school that has a growing speech and debate program. My daughter, Madison Alliston, began her forensics experience in seventh grade with a couple of tournaments which led to participation almost year-round with the 11-month speech and debate state and national schedule of events. What has impressed me most about my daughter's participation in this activity has been her growth. Not only has she made friendships that will last a lifetime, she has learned the fundamentals to be a confident speaker, a skill that will benefit her in her college years and beyond. And, I wanted her peers, with and especially without disabilities, to learn that skill as well.

Service is a featured aspect of Sacred Heart High School and the focus on using the team's strengths and skills to do service seemed like a perfect AmeriCorps activity. Service is also a featured aspect of the transition-to-adulthood programs at the Institute for Disability Studies where I work. For the past 10 years, I have been blessed to develop inclusive programs for youth and young adults with disabilities to find their voice in order to reach their dreams. The TRIAD Service AmeriCorps program is a national service program and consists of youth and young adults with and without disabilities. The focus is providing health education and recreational opportunities for middle and high school students with disabilities. My daughter and her classmate Alex Wade are both speech and debate officers as well as current AmeriCorps members. So this summer, this inspiration for speech and debate to assist people with disabilities became a reality with the first Speak Up Speak Out event, a self-advocacy experience for youth and young adults with disabilities. It was a natural fit to take the passion of these speech students and incorporate it into assisting self-advocates in finding their voice.

When I approached Alex about this self-advocacy experience, she immediately agreed to help make it happen. Alex used her personal growth through participating in speech competitions as a motivator. "Finding my voice through speech and debate was life-changing. To be able to share that ability with others, especially youth and young adults with disabilities, was an honor." Both Alex and Madison were involved in all planning activities, theme development and were the leaders for the Speak Up Speak Out three-day event which became a reality in June.

Here is an event overview from the viewpoint of Madison and Alex.

Speak Up Speak Out was an inclusive self-advocacy program for youth and young adults with and without disabilities. Each morning we began with a few icebreakers allowing each participant to become more comfortable sharing about themselves with the group. Then we moved on to tongue twisters which were a crowd favorite! Everyone got the opportunity to try out the tongue twisters individually which led to a lot of laughs and an easy-going atmosphere. Next, we would go outside for warm ups, which are just short activities to get everyone moving and loosened up. Afterwards, we returned indoors and then split into two groups to develop skits. Each skit was completely original and came from the ideas of everyone in the group. We had a lot of fun creating our scripts and both groups selected the theme of superheroes and using your self-advocacy powers. Everyone enjoyed developing their names for their heroes, and of course, we had to have villains, too. The rest of day one and two focused on finalizing, refining and learning the skits. On the third and final day, we performed the skits for a full house of peers and IDS staff. When the performances were finished, each participant was given a certificate for participating in the Speak Up Speak Out event. All agreed that this experience was a hit!

Both skits focused on learning to use your superpower skill of self-advocacy or advocacy to make a difference. Madison noted her involvement with this event reinforced how important it is for everyone to have the same opportunities. "Anyone is capable of doing amazing things, as long as they have people there to help them and work with them. It's important to find people who can help and can be there to support you in life."

Overall, I was really pleased with this event and do feel it was a success. The evaluation results were favorable, and both Madison and Alex recommended that this be a yearly event. I decided to talk to two of our young leaders who participated in the event and get their reactions. Caty said she "liked the part when we went outside and did the warm-ups. It was fun and gave me more confidence in my speaking ability." The last leader I spoke with was Jeromy who smiled immediately when I mentioned his participation in the Speak Up Speak Out event. Jeromy truly summarized the purpose of this event and why it will become part of the AmeriCorps program: "I learned to use my voice, and it felt good."

For more information about TRIAD Service AmeriCorps, contact the Hattiesburg Campus Program Specialist Sylvester Crosby at [email protected] or the Gulf Park Program Specialist Devin Bellman at [email protected].

The Institute for Disability Studies (IDS) has been located at Southern Miss for more than 40 years and has satellite offices on the Southern Miss Gulf Park campus in Long Beach and in Jackson. IDS provides pre-service training, community services and technical assistance programs for individuals with disabilities of all ages and their families. IDS' areas of emphasis include education and early intervention, housing, transition to adulthood and wellness. For more information about IDS, visit www.usm.edu/disability-studies.