Ability Institute Takes Its Message of Inclusivity Abroad
Ability activism has always been a part of life for Karen Myers, Ph.D., associate
professor of leadership and higher education and director of Saint Louis University’s
“Disability has been in my life all my life,” she said, referring to the legal blindness
that she and 20 of her family members experience. Because the Americans with Disabilities
Act has been in existence for more than 25 years, Myers assumed most people understand
the basics of disabilities and empowerment. When she realized she was wrong, she went
straight to work.
Together with Mary Ann Borgesen, graduate student in the School of Education and coordinator
of business and operations, and Mark Pousson, Ph.D., faculty educator in the School
of Education, Myers heads the Ability Institute, a three-program initiative created
in SLU’s School of Education.
With the support of Dominique Masters, graduate student in the School of Education
hailing from the United Kingdom, the Ability Institute left for London on Sept. 23.
It was the institute’s first-ever international trip. The institute set up shop in
three schools around England, spreading its message of inclusion and understanding
far beyond what Myers anticipated when its original program, Allies for Inclusion:
The Ability Exhibit, was created.
What started as a final project by a graduate student in Myers’s disability and higher
education in society class in 2010 has since grown into an international program that
promotes action for people with and without disabilities. Allies for Inclusion: The
Ability Exhibit, travels to at least ten schools and corporations each year. A series
of stations greets visitors, teaching them about person-first and identity-first language
(identifying an individual as an individual instead of as a person with a disability),
invisible disabilities and how to treat people with disabilities in the workplace.
Interactive stations allow participants to see, feel, hear and act out what it means
to have a disability.
The exhibit’s layout is intentional, put together in a way that is meant to ignite
a passion and inspire a desire to act. Participants begin in Myers’s favorite exhibit,
“Who do you know with a disability?”, where they place stones into jars marking types
of disabilities their friends, family members or acquaintances may have – both mental
and physical. With people in their lives who are affected by disability in mind, participants
then journey through a series of stories and exercises that teach them empathy and
encourage them to make life accessible for all people.
“It starts with, ‘what’s this all about?’ And by the end, it’s saying, ‘I am going
to pledge to be an ally,’” Myers said. “That’s really the goal: global education for
ally development and inclusion.”
Furthering the push to become an ally is the institute’s second program: the Ability
Ally Initiative. This 90-minute workshop, developed by a student and supported through
a United Way grant, has traveled throughout the country — as well as Ghana, Belize
and Spain — to provide a quick, simplified experience of the lessons from the full
exhibit when time and space are lacking.
The most recent addition to the Ability Institute hopes to ignite the ally mindset
early. Ability Allies in Action: The K-5 Curriculum is a program coordinated by Diane
Richter, a doctoral student in disability education at SLU. Building on the progress
first made by Maureen Wikete Lee, Ph.D., associate dean of the School of Education,
Richter works to create a curriculum for teachers that fits into a suitcase and aligns
with Missouri’s learning standards.
Recognizing that teachers are short on time, Richter created an easy and fun program
of activities for each grade that teaches inclusion within the bounds of other topics
teachers already plan to cover. One assignment uses students’ engineering skills to
encourage them to investigate their own playground. Students in the fourth grade learn
about accessible playgrounds and design an ideal playground based on the accessibility
standards they learn. Richter sees these assignments as the starting point through
which teachers can empower students, schools and their community to become aware of
abilities and inclusion.
“It’s not just one day or week dedicated to disability awareness, but it’s integrated
into the school and the community,” Richter said.
Helping communities ignite and improve their ally mindset has been the crowning achievement
of the Ability Institute. Myers is proud that in seven years, the exhibit has appeared
more than 100 times at universities, community organizations and corporations.
She is grateful for monetary and spiritual support from SLU alumna and long-time volunteer
Mary Bruemmer, as well as the incredible positive response she’s received from the
School of Education, Student Development and Logan College of Chiropractic. Richter
sees the institute best advertised through students who are preparing to become teachers;
she has witnessed them beginning to see things through the eyes of accessibility and
inclusion, and she is excited to know that they will create their classrooms with
these ideas in mind.
School of Education graduate student Tanyathorn Hauwadhanasu is one such student.
The parent of a child with autism, Hauwadhanasu already recognized the importance
of advocating for people with disabilities. Myers’s class gave Hauwadhanasu the tools
to speak out for those with visible and invisible disabilities - something she sees
as in line with SLU’s overall mission.
The exhibit has “built knowledge and promoted inclusion and social justice. SLU’s
mission is inclusion, social justice and diversity,” said Hauwadhanasu, who sees disability
as a kind of diversity. “People can become aware of that and treat each other with
respect and acceptance. That’s the exhibit’s impact.”
Farah Habli, doctoral student in the School of Education, agrees.
“It was a very rich exhibit,” she said of the first time she experienced it. “I learned
all I needed to know in one visit.” She sees the exhibit as a “place where every person
can know about inclusion and how to advocate for it.
Myers finds the most value in the small changes made by people who go through the
exhibit. It’s why she is so proud of the final stop on the exhibit’s journey, which
asks participants how they will be an ally for inclusion.
“What’s very exciting to me, in class and in the exhibit, is when people say, ‘wow,
I never knew that. I’m going to go home and make my font on my email universally designed,
or change our website, or lower a bookshelf so people in a wheelchair can reach our
These commitments – whether large or small – make all the difference to Myers, who
hopes participants-turned-allies will begin to change how we see ability and disability
at Saint Louis University and beyond.
Last week’s London and Canterbury trip was the first time all three institute programs
went abroad together. Their travels included stops at Saint Mary’s University, Kent
University and The King’s School.
Myers and her team brought a brand-new version of the exhibit to the U.K., made specifically
for global travel and international outlook.
“The United Kingdom has disability laws, and they are very attentive,” she said. “However,
it is an older country, so some of the facilities may not be as accessible.” She hopes
this will be the first of many trips to the United Kingdom and beyond.
Moving forward, Myers and Richter hope to continue helping others see ability and
inclusion wherever they go. “My hope is that the program becomes global and that everyone
will be on board,” she said. She said she hopes that all people throughout the world
will one day consider themselves allies.
When thinking about what it means to be an ally, Myers recalls one third grader’s
response to that question when the institute visited his school.
“He raised his hand and said, ‘It’s being a friend.’ And I couldn’t say it any better,”