This April, ADA Minnesota awarded the Community Bridge Consortium a $1,000 grant to identify obstacles that the physically disabled have to overcome in order to participate in community education. Specifically, the grant will allow the Consortium (a volunteer-based group whose mission is to support programs for adults with disabilities) to design a survey, reach out to potential survey participants, and develop and implement a plan to increase participation in community education.
“We want to know what a person would like to do in community education, and what the barriers are that keep them from participating,” said Helene Oppenheimer, an instructor for the Community Education Adult Enrichment Programs in School Districts 622 and 833, which include the areas of North St. Paul, Maplewood, Oakdale, and South Washington, and a consultant for the Consortium’s grant project.
Oppenheimer first avoided getting involved in community education because of her own physical disability. In 1990, Oppenheimer retired from teaching high school German because of chronic pain from six herniated disks, and fibromyalgia, and post traumatic stress disorder. Since then, Oppenheimer has made a name for herself in the local and national arts community, creating clay sculptures that incorporate American Sign Language.
Ten years later, Oppenheimer has resumed teaching with help from the Community Education’s Adult Enrichment programs. For three years, Gretchen Carlson, a member of the Consortium, and Director of Adults with Disabilities for school districts 622 and 833, requested that Oppenheimer become involved with the adult enrichment program. For three years, Oppenheimer told Carlson, “I just can’t.” Oppenheimer did not believe she could handle the stress of teaching with a physical disability.
“Finally, Gretchen asked me, ‘what is it that you need, how could you teach again?’,” said Oppenheimer. “I said, ‘I’d need three people: an interpreter, people to lift, [and] people to drive me.”
“We’ll do it.” was Carlson’s response.
Currently, Oppenheimer teaches two classes a week, Beginning and Advanced American Sign Language with Clay, where students explore clay as a medium to express and develop a deeper appreciation for American Sign Language, and deaf culture. The course description encourages participants from all backgrounds, emphasizing that a student neither needs to be an artist, nor needs to know ASL. However, Oppenheimer said she felt it was important to design classes for the physically disabled in particular because, traditionally, “The focus has been on the developmentally disabled.”
When Joe Ascheman, a deaf member of Oppenheimer’s Advanced class, was asked what his favorite part of the class was, he responded, “Communication Accessibility.” Ascheman had taken art classes in high school, but as the only deaf person in the classes, he was left alone to focus on his work. “I prefer this,” Ascheman says. In Oppenheimer’s class, Ascheman has an interpreter for instruction. The class also provides a social outlet where both hearing and deaf people can create, explore, communicate, and have fun together.
“I teach sign language and Braille as an art form, and it is unlike anything in the world that I know,” says Oppenheimer, “These art classes were the beginning inspiration for our grant project.” Oppenheimer hopes that people will respond to her survey so that she can report back to Community Education, “Now we want to get out there and see if there is something we can do that we are not doing to make sure that people like myself, who want to be involved, can be. We want to make sure we aren’t overlooking anyone.”
When asked what she hopes will come from the survey results, Oppenheimer said, “It is my hope that eventually any adult with a physical disability who wants to be involved in learning and in teaching can reach their dream, maybe even surpass their dream.”
The grant project ends in September, but Oppenheimer would appreciate feedback from survey participants as soon as possible. For more information about the survey and Community Education’s Adult Enrichment programs, please contact Helene Oppenheimer at (651) 578-7649 V/TTY or e-mail her at [email protected]. To see samples of American Sign Language in Clay, visit the World Wide Web at http://home.earthlink.net/~asclay.