'We are all one community' : Connecting students with and without disabilities at CVU

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'We are all one community': Connecting students with and without disabilities at CVU

by Leonie Schwetlick, Champlain Valley Union High School

It's 1:45 in the CVU cafeteria, after lunch. Around a gray plastic table, a variety of kids sit dealing cards of UNO. Some have visible disabilities. Some have chairs for special needs, others do not.  The table giggles, and a victorious cry sounds as Connor Turnbaugh once again wins the game, with a yellow four. 

Connor Turnbaugh (center) and friends at the P3 Program at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinseburg

The group has come together this Wednesday as part of the Peer Partnership Program (P3), a club at CVU that works to connect students of all abilities through games and field trips. Every student who engages with the P3 program benefits, including those with and without disabilities. 

Connor Turnbaugh is a CVU senior. He is charming and bubbly. Connor also has Down syndrome. 

Growing up with Down syndrome, Connor faced social exclusion. His mother, Mary Turnbaugh, said that Connor was accepted by his peers in preschool and in the early years of elementary school, but began to be left out of social gatherings in about the 4th grade, and was bullied from 5th grade throughout middle school. Mary said that Connor's “only true friends at school were his paras and special educators.” 

Mary said it is difficult as Connor's parent to see how his high school experience differs in comparison to his four older siblings. Connor cannot attend social events without a chaperone and "spends weekends with us rather than friends.”

P3 provides an opportunity that might not often arise for disabled students: the chance to socialize with kids their age.

Daniel Lyons, a special educator in CVU’s Community Skills Program, and an organizer of P3, has been working with special needs students for over 20 years. Lyons said these students spend a lot of time with adult supervision, and that “the social fabric just kind of drifts by them.”

For Connor, P3 provides a place to form social connections that he lacked growing up.  Mary, Connor’s mother, said that when Connor was young, “He wanted so badly to be included.” This year, Connor has attended field trips through P3, and many game sessions. Connor says that P3 "supports me and it makes me happy to have more friends. I feel happy here."

Around half of P3's members do not have a disability. Karen Rodgers, a special educator at CVU, and a founder of the program, said that P3 can “take away that fear or...question of whether or not this person wants to make a connection.” 

Rodgers said the structure of the program “enables people to be . . . their true selves.” She described a student without a disability who had anxiety, who was able to "clarify their values…and what to do next with their future" by meeting students with disabilities through P3. She said another student without a disability learned new skills at P3 which made him "more successful while interacting with people of different backgrounds."

Anna McFaden is a CVU junior who does not have a disability and has been working with P3 for about a year and a half. Anna said that one reason kids at CVU don’t reach out more to peers with disabilities is the fear of the unknown. She said that when branching out to different people, communication barriers can be intimidating. "I think [it] may stop people," she said, "but you can overcome and find different ways of how they communicate."

Anna said that P3 has given her a deeper appreciation for things. “People just make assumptions about people," she said. "And I feel like that is harmful.” It’s better to, “get to know [them] first. It can really impact someone.”

Connections formed in P3 extend beyond official meeting times. 

Delaney is another P3 member who has a rare chromosome deletion associated with intellectual disability and delay of motor skills.

In a zoom interview with Delaney and two of CVU's special educators, Chance Hicks and Mili McCoy, Chance asked Delaney, “Now you see people in the hallways and you know who they are, right?” 

"Right," Delaney confirmed, and said that when she sees students she has met through P3 in the hallways, she is "very excited!" 

Connor Turnbaugh was also on the call. 

"Delaney and Connor, you are CVU students," McCoy said, "We are all one community, and some are more able than others. I really don't think that there is an awareness of that." 

"It's a big thing about inclusion," Hicks said. "And that's for everybody."

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