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Spring 2020 – FIG Meeting #3

At our final FIG meeting of the Spring, ten participants joined us on Webex, including Sue Carpenter again calling in from the U.K.! Jason and Kensaku from Melissa Riggio also joined us to chat.

We began with our “Movie Chat,” where we discussed both “Summer in the Forest” and “Crip Camp” (on Netflix). This was an excellent discussion, and makes us think we should do more of this in the future. We learned from both the residential commune model depicted in rural France and Palestine, which was revolutionary in the 60s when it was created as a humane alternative to institutionalization of people with disabilities. The creator of this model (which has been replicated in many countries around the world) was a religious former military officer who had a humane alternative vision. Sue insightfully compared this to the “Steiner model” of education, which would be useful for us all to learn more about.

We also had a spirited discussion of “Crip Camp,” which depicts a camp in upstate New York where the future leaders of the disability rights movement (teens at the time) met each other and bonded, being seen by each other as real human beings for the first time, rather than “that crippled kid” which is how many viewed them back in their home schools and communities. This was a really inspiring film, because it showed actual footage of the 1977 building occupations in San Francisco around the fight to enact Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. We saw testimony from Ed Roberts, Judith Heumann, and other well known leaders of the disability rights movement. We also saw how community support from the Black Panthers in providing meals for the protesters was key to their being able to last as long as they did without leaving the building until they won their demands! This connection between the civil rights, Black Power, and Disability Rights movements (along with today’s Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street movements) was a very powerful one that we said should be shared among our faculty and students.

The film also showed footage from the 1990 “Capitol Crawl” in which people in wheelchairs left their chairs to crawl up the U.S. Capitol steps in Washington, DC! This created enormous pressure on the government to act to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities, and resulted in the passage of ADA in 1990. We discussed how viewing this film should be an assignment in our classes related to disabilities, because it changes students thinking from seeing people with disabilities as passive and helpless “victims” for whom protective laws were passed, to seeing the truth – that people with disabilities have been and are powerful fighters and activists who have organized to demand and win their civil rights in the face of discriminatory and oppressive forces.

In the second part of our meeting, Lisa presented a wonderful PowerPoint that illustrated key points from the NC-NET document that outlines 8 “soft skills” that have been identified by employers as key to the job success of people with (and without) disabilities. Lisa illustrated the importance of communication skills in work settings, and demonstrated a classroom activity that can help to build these skills, as well as sharing her own rubrics focusing on communication skills during oral presentations. Jeremy followed this with a brief presentation on teamwork skills, another key soft skill, that faculty at KCC are working on building through a variety of collaborative projects and student groupwork. One takeaway from this is the need to directly focus on building skills for respectful communication, group accountability, and cooperative spirit before merely assigning students to groups for presentations and projects. Professor Lea Fridman had also shared valuable materials on teamwork with KCC staff, and we discussed reaching out to create a network of “expert” staff and faculty who have insights into these 8 soft skills and activity build these skills in their classes.

Because KCC classes are so varied and rich in promoting these soft skills, we feel that future CUNY Unlimited Students would benefit from being able to take a variety of classes to build these key job skills. While we learned that, due to delays related to the pandemic and national DOE processing of CUNY Unlimited’s application, CUNY Unlimited will be start in Fall 2020 as planned, we are hopeful that the program will roll out soon and in our FIG we want to prepare the ground for these students to have an inclusive and educationally beneficial experience when they arrive on our campus. We are hopeful to have Melissa Riggio students in our classes in the Fall (since we unfortunately did not have them this Spring semester) given that KCC has had more time to prepare for remote learning with these students. This will of course be a key area of work for our FIG looking forward into next school year.

We also wanted to share an updated Melissa Riggio Video with Presidents of both the College of Staten Island and Hostos Community College talking about their experiences with the program, the first link below. Another inspiring Melissa Riggio video that students seem to enjoy is linked below. It is great because we see the mentors and students with Intellectual Disability interacting, which shows the power of the “social model” of disability under which we are working. Feel free to share this with students to let them know the opportunities KCC is helping to create with Melissa Riggio.



Finally, we are very proud of the 6 Melissa Riggio students that nevertheless are graduating this Spring, as Jason shared with us!

Thanks for a great school year everyone. We will see you again in the Fall!

~Jeremy Sawyer

Spring 2020 – CUNY Unlimited, 2nd FIG meeting (4-28-20)

At our 2nd FIG meeting of the Spring, ten participants joined us on Webex, including Sue Carpenter calling in from the U.K.! Jason and Kensaku from Melissa Riggio also joined us to chat.

Sue updated us on her work overseas during her sabbatical, where she is involved with some very progressive research at University of Kent with research teams that include people with disabilities themselves as an integral part of the team (illustrating the old demand from the disability rights movement, “Nothing about us without us!”). She also shared an interesting cultural / political comparison between the U.S. and U.K., wherein the U.K. is more progressive in terms of providing internships and employment for people with disabilities, and the population at large is more knowledgeable about disability in general than the U.S.

At the same time, however, perhaps largely because of the civil rights movement that ended racial segregation in the U.S., which then led to the disability rights movement, we have more inclusive higher education opportunities for people with disabilities (as well as a history of open admissions and community colleges that welcome all students). By comparison, students with disabilities are more segregated and excluded from higher education the U.K., though there is interest in more inclusive models, which Sue is helping to further in her work. Thanks for joining us and sharing this update, Sue!

In keeping with this “cross-cultural comparison” theme, at the end of the meeting (to jump ahead) we decided to watch two films, “Summer in the Forest,” which gives insight into innovative models for people with intellectual disability in France and Palestine, and “Crip Camp” on Netflix which covers a camp in upstate NY for people with disabilities that Judith Heumann and other founders of the disability rights movement attended. We will compare and contrast these films in our next meeting to gain further insights.

Jason and Kensaku shared that although students at KCC were withdrawn from classes this semester after we unexpectedly went remote, we are hoping that they will be able to attend with full Blackboard access in the Fall, while it is still uncertain whether will we be in distance learning or not. We hope to learn from the experiences of the other CUNY campuses whose Melissa Riggio students continued with remote learning this semester, and we all thought reaching out to faculty at other campuses who are active around these issues would be a good idea. Ideally, some folks from these other campuses could join us at our next FIG meeting. That way, we can help to generalize lessons among the faculty at KCC who will hopefully have Melissa Riggio students in the Fall. It sounded like the Melissa Riggio students were rather disappointed upon being withdrawn from classes this semester, so we hope that we can help to give them a positive and inclusive experience in the Fall.

Finally, we began to discuss how we can support CUNY Unlimited students in the Fall and beyond by identifying particular classes at KCC in each of our departments that promote key skills that will be useful for employment of students with disabilities. Lisa shared a useful article that framed this matter around 8 key areas of “soft skills” that employers themselves have identified as lacking in job applicants. An important point that emerged in our discussion was that students with intellectual (and other) disabilities many times can obtain a job, but they later lose it due to difficulties with communication, teamwork, interpersonal skills, or not understanding how best to advocate for themselves on the job (as well as employer misunderstandings or lack of flexibility). We plan to discuss this further next meeting, launching our discussion from the 8 categories, and thinking about what classes already emphasize these skills at KCC, and how we might integrate these important job skills further into our teaching and curriculum.

Thanks for a great meeting everyone! Our next meeting will likely be mid or late May.

~Jeremy Sawyer

Spring 2020 – first FIG meeting (3/30/20)

Spring 2020 – first FIG meeting (3/30/20)

At our 1st meeting of Spring, eight of us met up on Webex. It was great to have some new folks join us – a warm welcome to Thomas, Melisa, Tyronne, and Gabriela! In terms of the ongoing CUNY First rollout, we received word from Stella that things are moving slowly because CUNY First’s application to the U.S. Department of Education has now been delayed due to COVID-19. The plan had been for this Fall, 2020 semester to be the first “live” semester for the program at 5 campuses across the city, including 5 students entering Kingsborough as full-fledged, registered students with all the rights that entails (including being in CUNY First and having full Blackboard access). This timeline now appears to be in doubt, but we will continue to monitor the situation.

In the meantime, several FIG members shared different experiences and information about their current Melissa Riggio (MR) students. It appears that students in some classes had access to Blackboard, but now have disappeared or been withdrawn from the classes. Others reported that their MR students never had Blackboard access, but they are continuing to work with them through other means (e.g. Webex videoconferencing or websites outside of Blackboard). We all expressed that we would love to still have MR students included in our classes, and we would support them learning to use the requisite technology as best we could. To the best of our knowledge, Melissa Riggio students at KCC have officially been withdrawn from all classes for the semester, despite the fact that some folks within CUNY-wide Disability Services had expressed that MR students should be continuing. Unfortunately, there has been little communication to instructors with MR students or the larger KCC community about these decisions, leading to some confusion.

Several of us plan to (or already are in the process of) communicating with Melissa Riggio in different ways, including with director Ife, who joined us at a previous FIG, and with KCC’s new liason from MR – Jason Lau. We can all share what we learn with each other. I have reached out to Jason to welcome him to KCC, invite him to join our regular FIG meetings, and to reaffirm our commitment to including students from MR and promoting inclusion in general. I also asked him if he could share more details about the decision to withdraw MR students from classes. Based on another email that a FIG member received, the decision was made by KCC due to the uncertainty created by our new remote learning mediums. I would be interested to hear more about AHRC/MR’s perspective on the situation, and whether this is occurring at all five CUNY campuses that house Melissa Riggio. I will share what I learn.

In terms of our goals for the semester, we arrived at a few key priorities. Please feel free to respond to this list if you have things to add to our goals and priorities for Spring.

1.     Helping to clarify the situation with MR students, and supporting their maximum inclusion moving forward.

2.     Collectively thinking about curriculum and/or courses in our respective departments that would benefit CUNY Unlimited students. We would like to help these students acquire the flexible, but targeted skill sets they will need for employment. If we develop some ideas around this (e.g. Don’s ideas for connecting students to recreational therapy and culinary arts through his department), we could potentially provide useful input on the development of the various certificates that CUNY Unlimited students will be earning. We have some time to think about this before they arrive on our campus, so let us know if you have ideas about this, and we can discuss it further in our next meeting.

3.     Since we’re spending a lot of time at home, let’s watching some disability-related films and discuss them! Thanks to Lisa, who has procured the film “Summer in the Forest” (trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLf1rx2RPrE) which is a great film that takes us to see an alternative developed in France in the 1960s to the institutionalization and other forms of ableism. We decided we wanted to watch this back in the Fall and so it seems now is an especially good opportunity! I believe Lisa could share access to the film virtually so that we can all watch it.

4.      In addition, for those of us with Nexflix, “Crip Camp” is now streaming, which is a film about a camp for people with disabilities in upstate NY (1950s – 1970s) that was an incubator for many of the leaders of the Disability Rights Movement in the US, including Judith Heumann. Here is a very positive review of the film from the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/mar/24/crip-camp-review-rousing-netflix-documentary-traces-disability-rights-movement

Shoot me an email and let me know if you’d be up watching one or both films and discussing them in our next FIG meeting.

Take care and stay safe everyone!


3rd FIG meeting (11/25/19)

At our 3rd FIG meeting of the Fall, six FIG participants attended, and in honor of November being National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), we focused on employment transitions for students with Intellectual Disability and other disabilities. Below is the Celebrate NDEAM website that Lisa shared with stories of successful employment transitions for people with a variety of disabilities, including Intellectual Disability: https://www.ndrn.org/resource/ndeam/?eType=EmailBlastContent&eId=42280600-5522-4708-8632-f7f1844c33ec

In terms of announcements, Sam shared with us the big news that he is moving to another AHRC position, and will no longer be working on KCC’s campus. He is also applying to a drama therapy program at NYU for next Fall, which sounds exciting! It is sad to see him go after just getting to know him, but we wish him well. We are not sure yet who will be taking over his position for Melissa Riggio on KCC’s campus. In other news, Stella and Nick will be attending a meeting with people from CUNY Central on December 9th about CUNY Unlimited and we look forward to their report-back with further information from that event.

We then discussed the film “Summer in the Forest” (trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLf1rx2RPrE) and decided to collectively buy it and watch it together as a group. We are interested in the alternative the film provides to institutionalization and other ableist ways of treating people with disabilities, as well as its inspiring example of how people taking action may be able to change how we conceive of disability on a large scale. This imagine the film will likely be useful to the Education Program in general, and can be loaned out to other faculty for viewing or use in their classes.

Finally, Nick shared with us an insightful presentation on his experiences working to help students with disabilities prepare for transition to employment. What Nick spoke about illustrated both the extreme challenges in finding employment (especially for students with visible disabilities, who face discrimination), as well as the hopeful glimmers we may be able to build on. Nick illustrated how just tackling the basics – preparing a resume, cover letter, and obtaining references – are often completely new experiences for these students, and ones which take them quite a while to learn. Templates are useful for resumes and especially the cover letter, which can appear very abstract to students. References can be difficult, as students have often fallen out of touch with former work mates, or have trouble getting back in touch with their previous jobs, if they have previous work experience.

Nick also shared that “Ken’s Crew” (started by the Langone family who have family members with disabilities) has been one of the most successful models that he has seen for transitions for students with Learning Disability, Autism Spectrum Disability, and mild Intellectual Disability. What makes it successful seem to include a large budget, direct connections with Home Depot, and previously Fairway and CVS, job coaching and transitional services, and an ability to “hold” a job for someone until a position opens. The process of applying and obtaining work also seems much faster and less burdened by paperwork and long strings of mass job visits and other meetings than his experience working through Access VR (formerly VESID).

Takeaways for faculty from his presentation were to always be prepared to serve as references for students with disabilities (which often does not involve a letter, but merely being willing to serve as a reference). Another recommendation was to avoid giving artificially inflated “pity grades,” as this sometimes needlessly prolongs the time that students spend taking classes, and may just be setting them up for academic failure at a later stage. Nick has found that many times an academic track may not be the right one for such students, and they could more quickly transition into the job market in a beneficial way. Above all, Nick and the rest of us hope that we will see a centralized and concerted effort on the part of CUNY Unlimited to make strong connections with employers who are willing to hire students with disabilities – or at least offer internships or part-time employment with possibility for later full-time hiring. It appears that thus far these direct industry connections are too often lacking in CUNY’s work to facilitate employment transitions. We know this is a challenging area for students with disabilities due to societal discrimination and business profit motives above human considerations, but we hope to learn more about the employment landscape and advocate for more job opportunities for students with disabilities.

We’ll be back for more in Spring, 2020!

2nd FIG meeting (10/28/19)

On 10/29/19, our FIG met for the second time. Sam shared that Melissa Riggio’s (MR’s) work continues to forge ahead, and he met with a variety of department chairs to share the new changes where MR students will become more integrated into CUNY classes, Blackboard, and so forth. The chairs seemed receptive he reported. Also, an email to faculty in the next few months is being crafted to announce their (optional) opportunity to have an MR student audit their class.

Stella provided a helpful update from Chris Rosa at CUNY Central on the rollout of CUNY Unlimited. Chris sent out an application to the US Education Department on behalf of CUNY Unlimited that includes the success of MR Students who are living in the dorms at College of Staten Island, which is a component the US Education Department was interested in, among others. They are also working on a different type of Title 9 training for CUNY Unlimited students (the current one is all online, and would be difficult to follow for them).

Chris also said that CUNY Unlimited students will pay tuition and student fees, making them full-fledged CUNY students who can join clubs and student government. This likely puts them on the “academic side” of the university rather than the “continuing education” side administratively, though this may end up being the decision of each individual campus (unclear who would make this decision, and with whose input). CUNY Unlimited students will continue to audit classes and will create portfolios in each class that will be graded by people in CUNY’s School of Professional Studies who have experience with work-related portfolios. CUNY Unlimited will start with the 5 campuses currently hosting Melissa Riggio programs (with 25 students admitted on each campus), and then other campuses will have the option to opt in.

We discussed Sue’s article, which we all found helpful for illustrating the energy, enthusiasm, and willingness to take risks that MR students bring to our classrooms. We agreed this is a good approach to getting other faculty on board and understanding how this can improve peer relationships and teach non-MR students quite a lot through these interactions. We appreciated the vivid classroom examples that Sue shared in her article.

Building on the spirit of Sue’s article, Nick shared “Summer in the Forest” a fantastic film about a commune for people with ID in France started in the 60s as an alternative to asylums that still exists today and stands as a hopeful, humane example of people with disabilities living a good life. We should all see this! Film description and website below:


Like countless others Philippe, Michel, Andre and Patrick were labeled ‘idiots’, locked away and forgotten in violent asylums, until the 1960s, when the young philosopher Jean Vanier took a stand and secured their release – the first time in history that anyone had beaten the system. Together they created L’Arche, a commune at the edge of a beautiful forest near Paris. A quiet revolution was born. Now in his 80s, still at L’Arche and revered by some as a living saint, Jean has discovered something that most of us have forgotten – what it is to be human, to be foolish, and to be happy. SUMMER IN THE FOREST invite us to abandon the rat race and forge new friendships.

Finally, we began talking about the difficulty of finding employment for people with ID, which is alluded to both in Sue’s article and Chapter 5 of our FIG’s book. We had a lot to say about this, and many questions, and from what we can tell the success stories are on a very case-by-case basis. Most internships through MR do not turn into jobs, and we wondered whether the employers hosting the interns could be challenged in some way on this. In the CUNY Unlimited rollout, we are hoping for a centralized push to make contact with employers that can not only provide internships, but who also can provide jobs. We were somewhat unclear on the tax breaks and federal incentives and how they apply to employers – they are there, but the details are hazy.

This would be a great topic to go deeper on in a future FIG, especially building on Nick’s expertise and experience preparing students for work. Until next time….

1st FIG meeting (10/7/19)

Our CUNY Unlimited FIG’s meeting of Fall 2019 took place on October 7th, and brought out eight people for a lively discussion and chance to meet other interested in enhancing inclusive education for students with intellectual and other disabilities. Our substantial experience and expertise in this work was evident among those who attended! I came away feeling that together we have quite a bit of experience with this work and excellent ideas for pushing it further.

Sam Patrick, the new Community Support Supervisor for the Melissa Riggio Program at KCC introduced himself and distributed Faculty Handbooks for the Melissa Riggio program that provide a nice overview of the program. Carol and Lisa shared a little bit about their experiences including students from Melissa Riggio in the past. As faculty, we will continue to share with our colleagues the positive benefits that come to our classes by including students with intellectual disabilities, not to mention to the students who are included.

Sam also shared an updated Melissa Riggio Video with Presidents of both the College of Staten Island and Hostos Community College talking about their experiences with the program, the first link below. Another inspiring Melissa Riggio video that students seem to enjoy is linked below. It is great because we see the mentors and students with Intellectual Disability interacting, which shows the power of the “social model” of disability under which we are working. Feel free to share this with students to let them know the opportunities KCC is helping to create with Melissa Riggio.



Lisa shared about a digital webinar she took over the summer through CATS (housed at Queensboro CC) about creating accessible syllabi, and it was mentioned that Peter Santiago and Tsubasa Berg can provide faculty with helpful advice in creating accessible course materials through Blackboard and other methods. Cecelia highlighted for us the importance of thinking about transitions from high school to higher education and careers for students with disabilities, which really helped to frame the importance of the work we are doing. Don shared many excellent ideas he has for connecting his department’s work and jobs like recreation therapy, culinary arts, and more with CUNY Unlimited internships and certificates as the program rolls out.

Some questions came up about the latest information on the CUNY Unlimited roll out. A lot still seems unknown, and we will reach out to appropriate CUNY people (e.g., Barbara Bookman or Carrie Shockley) to find out more. Some specific questions were: can Melissa Riggio students get any kinds of credits if they transfer over to CUNY Unlimited based on their experience there? Also, what will the certificate (or certificates) look like, and how will they connect to potential jobs for those students? Specifically for Education Program students, we pointed out that without a GED or HS diploma they currently could not work as teachers’ aides or in other DOE jobs – thus, what jobs might be available for these students? And finally, will CUNY Unlimited will be on the Academic side of the University or the Continuing Education side?

Finally, we affirmed that we want to work together to convince more colleagues of the positive benefits of inclusion. To help us with this, we will read Sue Carpenter’s forthcoming article, which was handed out at the meeting. Our next FIG meeting will be on Monday, 10/28 in the Education Program conference room (V-117) at 3pm. We also discussed reading the chapter on “Intellectual Disability” in our FIG’s book “College for Students with Disabilities: We Do Belong.” It is full of stories, case studies, and the current outlook for students with various disabilities (including intellectual disability, autism, cerebral palsy, learning disability, and ADHD) in higher education.

Finally, Stella mentioned the Call for Proposals for the excellent CUNY Neurodiversity Conference. They are looking for presenters like us who have experience and insight working with students with Intellectual Disability, and thinking about how to best include them at KCC. We also mentioned possibly planning to attend together as a FIG. They have one day on autism spectrum and one day on intellectual disability, and the conference will take place this March 12th and 13th, 2020. It is an excellent place to network with others CUNY-wide who have similar interests in inclusion, CUNY Unlimited, and who are working on similar things.

Here is a link to the conference:


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