Presenting at SXSWEdu

What a week!

For me, it started in Austin, Texas for the annual South by Southwest Education conference (SXSWedu). There were 6,000 teachers, administrators, and supporters of education- from early childhood to higher ed- in attendance this year. With a strong culture of innovation, SXSWedu is where the most progressive conversations about education are taking place. Well, mostly. I have found the content on disability inclusion to be a little behind the times. I have made it my mission to change that and to bring more and better inclusion programming to the event.

You might recall that last year I hosted a panel of three incredible young adults with disabilities who spoke candidly about their experiences with education in a session that was very well received (which had everything to do with the panelists). This year I partnered up with disability rights activist and friend of KIT, Emily Ladau, to lead a conversation around the language of disability.

I had a motive with this topic. The programming at this conference is organized in tracks. The track on our subject at SXSWedu is called “Special Needs.” I have been advocating for the past two years that the name of the track should be changed to something more current, like “Disability Inclusion” (or even combined with the already existing track called “Equity”). I joined the SXSWedu Advisory Board so I could make my case. This year I was able to get to the general manager of the event, and he was supportive. However, he was hesitant to change the name of the track without the support of the SX community of teachers and administrators. He invited me to lead a “Campfire Conversation” on the topic at this year’s conference and gauge the reaction.

What a rich conversation this turned out to be! We had over 75 participants from schools, support organizations, and even an engineer from Microsoft who created the Immersive Reader technology in Word. There was a consensus that SXSW should change the name of the track to Disability Inclusion (yay!). But, in addition to that, we had a very engaging discussion about the ways we (as a society) describe and label children and youth. We even asked everyone to list all the terms that are used to talk about students with disabilities and put them all up on the wall. Wow. What a complicated web of medical terminology, euphemisms, and even de-humanizing legal language (like “504 Kids” and “IEP Kids”). Several young adults with disabilities shared that this language not only stigmatized them as children but has followed them into adulthood. We talked about how language can be used to help young people develop their self-advocacy skills and engage with the larger disability community. After the session was over a man approached me and told me the story of his daughter who had a stroke at age 10 and is now 14 and has multiple disabilities as a result. He teared up as he described how she is regarded and described at school by both staff and students. It was such a moving reminder that language matters. I hope that soon I will be able to share with you that SXSWedu decided to change the “Special Needs” track to “Disability Inclusion.”

What a way to start my week! Now, I get to end it back at the KIT HQ with 8 of our team members who are leading our 2020 strategy. We will be working on planning for next year and creating more ways to spread our mission of inclusion. My passion is on full burn this week!