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Project ENABLE: Breaking Down Barriers for Students with Disabilities

December 08, 2011 ET

Renee Franklin Hill, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Syracuse University

What happens when a program brings educators from all over New York State to learn strategies for providing information services to K-12 students with disabilities? A collaborative professional development experience like none other!

With funding from IMLS’s Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program to Dr. Ruth Small, Professor and Director of Syracuse University’s Center for Digital Literacy, Project ENABLE (Expanding Nondiscriminatory Access by Librarians Everywhere) was created. This continuing education project brought together teams of school librarians, general educators, and special educators from across New York state to attend intensive workshops on the Syracuse University campus. The workshops, held during the weeks of July 11-15, 25-29, and August 1-5, 2011 exposed participants to best practices for serving pre-K-12th grade students with disabilities. William Myhill and I designed and delivered the workshops, which were held at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies.

Any Project ENABLE participant who expected to drag through a week of boring professional development seminars likely wasn’t familiar with Principal Investigator Dr. Small’s life mission to infuse motivational factors into every project she puts into action. From the moment the workshops began so did the activity. First up was introduction by “speed dating.” The intent, of course, was not to foster romantic connections but to give a roomful of strangers the chance to find common linkages within two minutes. And the momentum only grew from there.

Instructional delivery for the workshops combined traditional face-to-face teaching with more innovative methods. For example, on the second day of each week, an expert in the area of Assistive Technology appeared via Skype to interact virtually with participants. Learning goals were achieved through multiple highly interactive means that emphasized the importance of collaboration. Each week, workshop participants

  • acted out scenarios and logged on to Web-based simulations designed to give them perspective about how the world might be experienced by individuals who have various disabilities,
  • took a field trip—tape measures and checklists in hand—to a campus library to practice evaluating the accessibility of a facility,
  • worked within their teams to create lesson plans that reflect instructional practices inclusive of and sensitive to students of all ability levels, and
  • presented a plan of action that illustrated a strategy for collaborating to create or improve library services and programs for students with disabilities at their schools.

A team of workshop participants collaborates on an activity.

While 4:00 p.m. marked the end of the regular workshop day (and time to take a brief quiz to ensure learning goals were met), it also signaled the start of another round of collaboration. Each evening, participants were grouped together based on their role in the school environment to prepare to lead a show-and-tell of sorts the following day. These interactions proved to be eye-opening experiences each week, as long-held opinions were challenged and myths debunked when participants learned about what colleagues who work in educational roles different from their own actually do in performing their job duties.

Week 2 Project ENABLE participants, instructors, and program assistants.

Each workshop week ended with project teams presenting a plan of action that illustrated a realistic strategy for collaborating to create or improve library services and programs for students with disabilities at their schools.

The workshops were certainly a success—preliminary results from pre- and post-tests indicate that participants increased their knowledge of topics associated with providing accessible services for students with disabilities. But though the summer workshops have ended, Project ENABLE lives on. Each librarian will share what they have learned by conducting two training sessions during the 2011-2012 school year for educators in their school districts. A wiki dedicated to Project ENABLE will allow participants to share progress made toward achieving action plan goals. Additionally, a Web site is under development that will make workshop content available via online modules that facilitate self-paced (and free!) professional development training that can be accessed by school librarians and classroom teachers around the world.

So, what happens when a project provides three weeks of professional development to over 100 people? A dynamic group of educators return to their schools committed to collaborating to ensure that students with disabilities have access to information, information resources, and information services. And that kind of commitment sparks enthusiasm that is contagious!

The Project ENABLE planning team (left to right): William Myhill, Ruth Small, Renee Franklin Hill, graduate assistant Kristen Link.

Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program