Sara Bitter is a strong Cincinnati based advocate for those with disabilities. She works with the ReelAbilties Film Festival to help spread awareness and change the perceptions people have of those with disabilties. Through her educational outreach, she goes out to classrooms with a short film and time for discussion. It’s through these class sessions, she is shifting ideas about disabilities at the youngest level and changing life for the better for all in our society.
So meet Sara Bitter – because she’s helping us all understand each other a little better than before.
JASON: TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT REELABILITIES AND THE FESTIVAL THAT’S COMING BACK NEXT YEAR.
SARA: ReelAbilities is a film festival that celebrates the lives, stories and art of people who experience [Disability Film Festival ReelAbilities Outreach with Sara Bitter] disabilities. The Cincinnati festival has decided to host its festival every other year and the next festival will be in February 2015. We have had many events leading up to the festival which we hope will help generate excitement for it. We call these Reel Programming events. There are at total of 4 events – most recently screened “Finding Nemo” in Washington Park which was a big success – lots of of people came. We also had an art opening at Thunder Sky, and we just had Rick Guidotti return to Cincinnati for a month long FotoFocus2014 exhibition at the Art Academy. We will have a Veteran’s Day screening in November about women in the military.
JASON: WHAT DO YOU DO WITH REELABILITIES?
SARA: I am one of the festival Co-Chairs. However, my main focus is as the Chair of the Education Outreach Program.
JASON: CAN YOU EXPLAIN MORE ABOUT THE OUTREACH PROGRAM?
SARA: The Education Outreach Program is a relatively new program for our film festival. We are working on a pilot program where we reach out to students and teachers in local schools. We want to bring films to schools that share the lives, stories, and art of people with disabilities. We’ve actually created one film on our own and have gotten the rights to show another film.
JASON: WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH BY GOING INTO THE SCHOOLS?
SARA: We’d like to get schools to start thinking about how they can better further inclusion in classrooms and school communities for students with disabilities. We’d like to promote higher expectations, more social engagements and more dialogue overall about these topics. The goal is that students with disabilities will become more included in the classroom and less segregated. We believe this is the key to receiving a better education.
JASON: WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO GO INTO SCHOOLS AND TALK ABOUT DISABILITIES?
SARA: I was inspired by my son who has a disability. When he was about to enter Kindergarten, I spoke with another parent who said she went to her son’s classroom and gave a presentation about his life and his disability to help the kids understand. She said she did this at the beginning of the start of each school year. So when my son entered Kindergarten, I made a PowerPoint with some great family pictures and talked to my son’s class. The presentation was short, but so impactful that it helped him be included in his classroom. I realized I would like to do this for all students who experience disabilities. I wanted to see if I could make a film that could have the same impact.
JASON: WHAT THINGS DID THE PRESENTATION HELP YOUR SON BE INCLUDED IN AT HIS SCHOOL?
SARA: I think the first thing the presentation did was, it helped the kids understand some of the challenges of his disability. More importantly though, it helped them to see (through real pictures) all of his many capabilities. Children are very quick to accept others. I believe that seeing this presentation and having a discussion with them, made them realize it was okay to talk about it. Once they knew what was going on, they were okay about it and they felt more comfortable. They then began interacting more with my son. For instance, my son had a hard time talking but had a lot to say using his communication devise. This was different for sure. He also understands everything. And even though he could not talk, he would understand what people were saying or were not saying. After the presentation the kids were quick to want to build connections and friendships with him. This helped him to have less anxiety and to feel happier at school. When you are happy, you learn better. He was also included in playing at recess and sitting with friends at lunch. It also helped him to feel more comfortable in participating in morning circle time and classroom meetings. He was on the morning announcements and was also the star of the week. So many positive things happened for him because of this inclusion.
JASON: WHAT’S HIS FAVORITE SUBJECT? WHAT DOES HE ENJOY?
SARA: His favorite special is music. He absolutely loves hearing and participating in music! He also loves reading. This is his favorite academic subject overall and he is very good at it.
JASON: IT SEEMS LIKE FROM WHAT YOU’RE SAYING IS THAT MUCH OF THIS HAS HELPED BUILD CONFIDENCE AND HE FEELS ACCEPTED AND INCLUDED. HE HAS A PEER GROUP THAT HE CAN BE COMFORTABLE WITH AND HE CAN UNDERSTAND THEM AND THEY UNDERSTAND HIM. DO YOU AGREE WITH THAT?
SARA: Yes. When you feel good about yourself you learn better. When you feel happy, you learn better. Because the kids truly accept him they almost go out of their way to include him in the classroom. And it’s not just the students in the classroom – it affects more people than that. It’s also has an impact on the teachers in the classroom and other adults in and around the school as well.
JASON: THIS IS A GREAT WAY TO SHOW PEOPLE THAT DISABILITY DOESN’T EXACTLY MEAN THAT SOMEONE WILL BE MORE TROUBLE – BUT RATHER THAT INCLUDING THOSE WITH DISABILITIES RATHER THAN FIGHTING THEM IS A GREAT WAY TO BRING UNDERSTANDING.
SARA: It is about understanding and accepting different ways of learning and being. And this applies to many people, not just people with disabilities. For teachers and administrators, if you are able to teach someone with a disability, you will be a better teacher for every type of learner and every student in your classroom and school. For typically developing students, understanding differences and being accepting of others, will help these kids grow into adults who are well rounded, who know how to work with others and to become leaders in their own communities and workplaces. To be better people really.
JASON: IF STUDENTS DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT’S GOING ON IN THE CLASSROOM, THEY TEND TO ACT OUT WHEN TEACHERS TRY TO GET THEM TO DO SOMETHING THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND. THIS IS A GREAT WAY TO LEARN HOW TO WORK WITH ALL STUDENTS AND CREATES A POSITIVE ENVIRONMENT.
SARA: Definitely. All of this helps reduces a lot of negative behaviors that can possibly arise. It really spans from helping ‘typical’ students to students with learning differences. Inclusion, in my opinion, helps to change perceptions and attitudes. I raises expectations and really increases learning and promotes a positive and welcoming classroom environment for all students.
JASON: THAT’S A REALLY GOOD POINT. THERE ARE A LOT OF PERCEPTIONS ABOUT PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES. SEEMS LIKE THAT IS A BIG PART OF WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO DO. SO WHAT KIND OF PERCEPTIONS ARE YOU TRYING TO CHANGE?
SARA: I think the biggest perception I would like to see change in schools in particular, is low expectations. This is one of the biggest challenges for students with disabilities. People hear that word “disability” and automatically assume that that student is not capable, but that is absolutely not true. All people want to be engaged and they want to learn. A person may learn differently, but that does not mean they must learn less. Raising expectations means realizing that students with disabilities need to learn the same subjects and materials as every other student. Or at least be exposed to it. Even if you have to figure out a way to accommodate or modify those materials or change the way you teach, it needs to be done. Parents with kids with disabilities expect this is happening and unfortunately all too often it simply is not. The detriments of low expectations will last a lifetime.
JASON: I KNOW WITH MANY DISABILITIES, IF THEY HAVE TROUBLE IN ONE AREA, IT’S ASSUMED THEY’LL HAVE TROUBLE IN MANY AREAS.
SARA: Sometimes there are areas you’re better at than others. It is true of everyone. I believe it helps if you can use your strengths in one area to help you in areas where you may have challenges. For instance, if you’re a visual learner or you have a great memory, but you have a hard time using your hands to write then a teacher or parent can find a way to teach using visuals and cut outs and have the child point to the answers to see if they are learning what is taught. You can teach subjects using high interest area materials when working on tougher subjects areas. You find ways to teach from other disability related teaching strategies as well. There are lot of great approaches out there with great research behind them. Also, accommodations and modifications can and should be used. They are often free and fairly easy to do. Parents can do this at home too and help their teachers learn new strategies if need be. We wouldn’t think twice about having a student use a wheel chair if they needed one. Or glasses for a child who had visual impairment. We need to start thinking like this and using more accommodations for students who have learning challenges as well.
JASON: MOST PEOPLE WHEN YOU GO THROUGH SCHOOL, YOU LEARN HOW TO COMPENSATE WITH WHAT YOU’RE NOT GOOD AT AND APPLY IT. FOR THOSE WITH DISABILITIES, THERE’S ALREADY A PERCEPTION THAT THEY HAVE TROUBLE WITH EVERYTHING.
SARA: I think that perception is the first place to start, but I also think it’s about comfort levels too. Having people understand it and talk about disability through story telling is my goal. You’re telling the story of a human being, of a person –and when we can connect to a person, we all learn and grow.. There are so many examples of that in ReelAbilities.
Right now we are using two films to achieve this change in perception in our program. But the sky is the limit. We could create more films or choose other films. This is just an introduction so to speak.
JASON: HOW DO YOU HOPE THAT STUDENTS OR PEOPLE WILL TAKE THESE MESSAGES AND APPLY THEM TO OTHER SCHOOL PROGRAMS OR JUST IN THEIR PERSONAL LIVES?
SARA: Talking about disability is better than not talking about it. I do believe that schools need to address the issues that come up around different abilities. I hope the message that they understand is just how important it is to begin talking about these issues. This is not just about advocacy and raising expectations – it goes beyond that. I believe our program actually goes to anti-bullying initiatives and even has messages which address the prevention of teen suicide. I think these messages are pretty big. And yes, once again, they need to be talked about. Our kids are too important not to address. I think this disability awareness program begins that conversation in a very impactful way.
JASON: IT’S A FORM OF SELF-ACCEPTANCE. YOU GET TO SAY “THIS IS WHO I AM.” EVERYONE IS DIFFERENT AND IT’S EASIER TO ACCEPT THAT IF EVERYONE ELSE CAN ACCEPT THAT ABOUT WHO THEY ARE.
SARA: That’s why the ReelAbilities theme is “Different Like You” – there really is no one size fits all for human beings and nor should there be. It’s about finding one’s own strengths and challenges, building on your strengths, and keep working toward improving your challenges. People can overcome many challenges with time and practice. Sometimes people need to practice more than others. Sometimes the challenge can even highlight your greatest strength. That strength might be determination.
I guess what I am getting at is that we shouldn’t assume that because someone has a disability, he or she can’t have big achievements. Can’t have great life experiences. Or can’t get a job, have a family or have a successful life. Modifications and accommodations throughout a person’s education will help them be able to participate in almost every academic and extracurricular activity so they can grow into productive self-determined adults. It just takes an ability to think outside of the box and make this happen. It takes adult leadership to make this happen. We all need to start with raising our expectations while at the same time begin accepting, that disability is okay. It is not a bad thing. It is a part of life.
I learned very early on through my own son that he’s not the one that needs to change. People with disabilities do not need to change. The world needs to change.
SARA BITTER IS AN ATTORNEY, A DISABILITY RIGHTS ADVOCATE AND THE CO-CHAIR AS WELL AS THE EDUCATION OUTREACH CHAIR OF THE CINCINNATI REELABILITIES FILM FESTIVAL. FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THIS PROGRAM, PLEASE VISIT THE CINCINNATI REELABILITIES FILM FESTIVAL WEBSITE AT WWW.CINCYRA.ORG UNDER “SCHOOLS.”