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Disabled in name, but not in life

Film documents innovative course

By Jennifer Schwartz
Globe Correspondent / August 31, 2008
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After a decade of teaching first-graders about physical disabilities, Cambridge Friends School teacher Maggie Doben wanted to reflect on her program's progress, so she decided to film the intensive, eight-week curriculum - where 6- and 7-year-olds learn basic sign language, map out wheelchair routes, interact with visitors, and ask difficult questions.

"I wanted to document the program from beginning to end to capture the transition," said the 33-year-old Watertown resident, who was wearing a silver ring with "learn" embossed in Braille and sitting on a brightly painted, kid-sized chair in the school library during an interview last week.

The film, "Labeled Disabled," begins by highlighting students' misconceptions about physical disabilities. One child doesn't know what the word "disability" means; another thinks a little person is called a gnome. By the end, they're excited to tell their parents how one man can draw flowers by holding a pen in his toes.

The film - which took two years to produce - premieres Sept. 24 at the Friends School in North Cambridge. A part-time professional photographer whose media production background is limited to free videography classes she took at Watertown Cable Access Channel, Doben wants to show people a "great school doing great work" and hopes to inspire others to take on similar projects.

As a child growing up in Swampscott, Doben was fascinated with disabilities. Her parents bought her books on Helen Keller and took her to visit the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown at her request.

When she began teaching first grade 11 years ago in Providence, and later in Pittsburgh, Doben wanted to incorporate a unit on disabilities. But she ran into conflict with school officials.

"I've worked in schools that told me to cut out the circus show," Doben said. "At CFS, with the mission of anti-biased education, they were very receptive." The program Doben created is now taught to all first-graders at Friends School, where she began teaching in 2003.

Jody Ziebarth, principal at Friends, said Doben's curriculum fits with the school's Quaker tradition.

"Our mission is to see the light within people and to never judge," said Ziebarth. "Maggie is removing stigmas, and we completely support that."

Visitors to the class - people of different abilities, genders, ages and races - are the curriculum's core.

Keith Jones, a 38-year-old Somerville resident who has cerebral palsy and a giggle-inducing sense of humor, said he loves telling the class how he plays video games by holding the joystick upside down.

"Their eyes get really big and they ask questions point blank," said Jones. "I'd rather talk to kids because they don't have the superficial layers. Pretty quickly, they forget I'm in a wheelchair and just see me as Keith."

Lillian Johnson, a 68-year-old Somerville resident who has been blind since birth, makes a hit with the kids by bringing in her guide dog.

"Their minds are so alert, and they truly remember what I tell them," she said. "The questions are so innocent - they wonder how I know when the lights in my house are on."

During one segment of the 48-minute film, Doben focuses her lens on the students when they pose tough questions to disabled people. If you could wake up tomorrow and be able to see (hear, walk, etc.), would you want that?

Most often, the answer is a resounding "no."

"Not to be funny, but what an eye-opener that would be," Johnson explained over the phone. "We don't even think of our disabilities as such. Not being able to see has never gotten in the way of how I present myself. I led cross-county ski tours for the blind because I love outdoor sports."

Jones, who runs a consulting company called Soul Touchin' Experiences, agrees. "I get frustrated sometimes if there is no curb cut, for example," he said. "But I'm an active father, husband, artist, community activist, and aspiring politician, and I like the way I am."

While the project is designed for first-graders, the film's message is applicable to all ages.

"We want people to know that our only limitations are the ones society puts on us," said Michael Muehe, director of the Cambridge Commission for Persons with Disabilities. "The kids in Maggie's classroom are really on the ball - so well-prepared. They ask a lot of provocative questions."

Doben is calling for more than tolerance, he said. Her message is to respect all people.

"It's instantly transferable to issues of gender, race, and religion because it says: 'respect the individual,' " Muehe said. "And that's what moves our communities forward."

"Now, more than ever," said Doben, "it's important because we have a war going on that is sending home thousands of wounded solders. They are trying to reenter society with disabilities."

This country has improved life for people with disabilities, she said, but cultural stigmas persist.

"Our society's aspirations are health, wealth, and beauty. People with disabilities are seen as ugly, unhealthy, and not being able to give anything to the workforce.

"Which is funny," she adds, "because most of my disabled friends are extremely smart and make more money than I do."

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