Penn symposium brainstorms best practices to serve people with disabilities

The annual Disabilities Symposium, hosted by Penn’s Weingarten Learning Resources Center, attracts a mix of new and veteran attendees who are excited to use their collective brainpower to best serve individuals with disabilities, says Susan Shapiro, director of the Office of Student Disabilities Services.

Now in its 13th year, the 2014 symposium, which will take place from 8:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. on Friday, April 11, in Houston Hall, draws both a local audience—Penn faculty, staff, students, parents, and community members—as well individuals from nearly 50 other colleges and universities from across the country.

“The goal is to bring together individuals who support students with disabilities at the post-secondary level,” says Myrna Cohen, executive director of the Weingarten Learning Resources Center. “It’s to bring them together and provide a forum of information, and an opportunity to exchange ideas and connect about common challenges and trends in the field.”

In addition to workshops on topics that range from supporting wounded veterans and teaching with accessible technology, to accommodating students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and promoting leadership, this year’s symposium features two engaging speakers: Adam Taliaferro and Angela Duckworth.

Taliaferro is known to sports fans for the life-altering spinal cord injury he sustained in a 2000 Penn State football game against Ohio State, as well as his miraculous recovery. He now works as a health care advocate, and in 2011 was elected to the Gloucester County Board of Chosen Freeholders, the youngest such official in the state of New Jersey.

Taliaferro’s inspirational remarks, “Navigating Life’s Challenges Through Belief in One’s Self,” will focus on the strength of the human spirit and the ability to overcome obstacles. He will speak from 8:30 to 9:45 a.m.

“Adam has the ideal inspirational story to kick off the day,” Shapiro says.

Duckworth, an associate professor of psychology at Penn, will focus on self-control and grit—factors that predict success both academically and professionally—as well as how they play out in children and adults, during her 12:15 to 1:45 p.m. address.

A 2013 MacArthur “Genius grant” Fellow, Duckworth’s research populations have included West Point cadets, National Spelling Bee finalists, novice teachers, salespeople, and students.

“One of the things that’s really interesting is that when we look at students with disabilities, it’s those that are self-determined and persistent [who] seem to do the best,” says Shapiro. “Angela will be able to give us some insight on how we can facilitate factors like resilience and grit in our students.”

The registration deadline for the symposium is Friday, April 4, or until capacity is reached. The registration fee is waived for students and Penn-affiliated participants.

Organizers encourage Penn faculty and staff to attend as many workshops throughout the day as they choose.

“I think what’s really important about this symposium is that it’s one packed day, but we can’t even measure its influence because we have Penn faculty and staff and individuals from other institutions taking these ideas back to students,” says Cohen. “In a really positive way, it’s the ripple effect.”