Emphasizing Empathy: Ability Awareness

Ability Awareness and Assistance

"I think it's really important we demonstrate to our families that we are an inclusive school district that values all students and meets them where they are at with the supports and accommodations they need for success.  It is part of what makes Ferndale great!"

-Heather Williams, ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) Teacher


Below are listed several online resources and other events and practices that happen in Ferndale every year to support our students with specialized needs.


Autism Alliance of Michigan

The Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAOM) has been a great support to our district. They spoke at our Safety Night (a night to teach safety practices to families of students with Autism and other disabilities). They are also our "go to" for resources in the district. Last year, FHS raised money for the AAOM.


Special Olympics Unified Schools

We also have a partnership with the Special Olympics Unified Schools. They provide Ferndale Upper Elementary School with a $1,000 dollar grant every school year to fund shared sports with general education and special education students. Last year, the Cognitive Impairment and Autism Spectrum Disorder program went to Team Guts (a local gym that provides organized sports for individuals with specialized needs) to participate in soccer, baseball, flag football, dance, obstacle courses and so much more.


New MOCI Classroom

Nicole Kata teaches in our Moderate Cognitive Impairment(MOCI) classroom at Ferndale Middle School. She recently had her classroom remodeled so that it was not only ADA compliant but a beautiful and functional space for her students.


Statewide Autism Resources and Training (START) Project

This school year select special education staff will be participate in an intensive training at Oakland schools called START.  START is the Statewide Autism Resources and Training (START) Project based out of Grand Valley State University. It is funded by the Michigan Department of Education, Office of Special Education to provide evidence-based training, technical assistance, and resources to educators in Michigan that serve students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. As START trainers, these staff members will become START coaches in the district.


Positively Awesome Leaders & Learners (PALs)

Heather Williams is entering her third year as a volunteer for our PALs program, held after school bi-weekly. She meets with students to learn and teach about Autism, as well as other disabilities, and plan inclusive activities together. During the week, students from general ed visit her classroom to interact with the students with Autism, so they can develop connections and build friendships. This unique after-school program began in 2017. Last year, the PALs bowled together, participated in fun sports and craft-related activities both inside and outside the school. Some of the PALs even assisted students in their weekly Creative Movement sessions, which culminated in a dance performance assembly on May 19th. During the month of March, PALs create posters to be displayed in the building with messages about acceptance and understanding about Autism. In the month of April, they run a fundraiser in the cafe, selling Autism Awareness materials to raise money for PALs activities, and other events for families and students with disabilities.

PALs Students in 2017

Ability Awareness Week

One key focus of our Social Emotional Learning curriculum is kindness and understanding of differences. Students learn about empathy and walking in the shoes of others in order to gain a better understanding of how they view the world. During the week of April 16th, 2018, students at Ferndale Upper Elementary (FUEL) participated in their first Ability Awareness Week. Staff members Marjorie Bresson, Lindsay Gonska and Heather Williams headed the committee to bring this program to the school building. The program included the use of disability kits to explore and experience firsthand what it might be like to have certain disabilities in the hopes of developing a sensitivity toward fellow students or people in their community who may face similar challenges.

The Disability Awareness Kits were borrowed from Rochester Community Schools. Through a grant provided by Wright and Filippis and the generosity of kit developer Lisa Kowalski, the kits were loaned to FUEL for an entire week. This allowed three classes to rotate through ten stations for about ten minutes at each station. By the end of the week, classes had spent more than two hours exploring the materials and discussing their experiences. 

You might be curious as to why FUEL borrowed DISability kits but decided to call their program Ability Awareness. Mrs. Bresson explains, “We wanted students to experience what it might feel like to have a disability. But at most stations, our focus was on assistive devices that help or accommodate for a particular area of need. Even though someone is born with or develops a unique physical or learning challenge, it doesn’t mean they can’t do things. It might mean they have to do things a little differently. But we are all capable.”

Preparations for our Ability Awareness month were also made by Mrs. Williams’s and Mrs. Bresson’s Positively Awesome Leaders #PALs. PALs consists of a group of student leaders at FUEL who stay after school twice a month to learn about disabilities. They also plan and prepare inclusive activities for general education students and students with special needs to participate in together.

Making April Ability Awareness Month

The Ability Awareness program was not the only way students experienced learning about differences. Heather Williams, teacher of students with Autism Spectrum disorder, utilized the entire month of April to further educate the staff and students in the area of Ability Awareness and Autism Acceptance. Last year, Mrs. Williams was awarded money from the Ferndale Education Foundation to fund the building of a library of books about various disabilities. This library was shared with staff. They read books to their students about many topics including informative books on various disabilities; general books on “how to be a friend”; and books about supports available for people including therapy dogs, wheelchairs, and other assistive technologies. She provided awareness books, informative announcements, conversation starters, and video clips for staff to share during the morning meetings. Dana Rubin, 4th grade teacher, stated, “The videos were great discussion starters around inclusion and accepting others for their differences. My students were engaged while watching the videos and really wanted to have their thoughts heard during discussion at morning meeting.” These activities all combined into a powerful experience for students which helped to build empathy and understanding — two of the cornerstones of our Ferndale elementary social-emotional learning program.