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Film featuring people with disabilities is catalyst for change

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Dozens gathered in the auditorium of Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington Feb. 27 for a film screening of “Intelligent Lives” followed by a panel discussion.

The film, directed by Dan Habib and featuring actor Chris Cooper, traces the lives of three people with intellectual disabilities. The panel discussion afterward revealed how Expanded Services at O’Connell — the intentional inclusion of students with disabilities into the school community — has enriched the lives of others as well.

“Educationally, a lot of good can come out of this film screening, but ultimately my goal and my prayer are that it will broaden minds and begin to get the wheels turning as far as how we can bring inclusion to our broader society,” said Susan Rinaldi, director of Expanded Services at O’Connell and moderator for the seven-person panel. 

One key to the success of Expanded Services is the willingness of students, such as Jack Murphy to serve as peer mentors alongside students with disabilities.

“Serving as a peer mentor has a profound impact on me. It’s improved my grades as well as my relationships with other students. And O’Connell’s become a lot better, too,” Murphy said. “Everybody has their own talents and skills but if you separate them then they have no way of knowing what they want to do. (Inclusive education) should be in every school in my opinion.”

Whitney Webb, Murphy’s teacher as well as a panelist, reiterated the importance of the collaborative spirit peer mentorship fosters.

“The mentor-mentee relationship helps foster collaborative relationships, joy, wonder and happiness,” Webb said. “It’s a force to be reckoned with.”  

David Hamilton and Meg Grattan, parents of O’Connell students receiving Expanded Services, were also on the panel. 

Hamilton, who has two sons with Down syndrome at O’Connell, credited school leadership for making inclusive education a priority.

“Unless you have constant reinforcement from the top that this is your core mission then you have a lack of supervision and accountability. That commitment is absolutely here, and it is absolutely critical,” he said. 

Grattan, whose son is a junior at O’Connell, also expressed her gratitude.

“I think O’Connell is just a wonderful microcosm of what things should look like in school. O’Connell has opened so many doors for him in terms of his confidence, such as being able to negotiate a large school and classrooms independently,” Grattan said.

She noted how her son has found his passion on the athletic field and currently is learning to play lacrosse. 

John Gionfriddo, a 2018 graduate of Mason LIFE at George Mason University in Fairfax, shared his experience of being included in his school community.

“Every year on campus made me more independent and self-confident. These experiences prepared me for graduation, interviewing for a job and being hired for full-time work at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing,” Gionfriddo said. 

Luke Smith, executive director of L’Arche in the Washington metro area, added that “people with the gift of intellectual disabilities are at the heart of our journey together.”

The final panelist to offer reflections was Carl Patton, O’Connell principal and the person Rinaldi credited with having the vision for inclusive education at O’Connell.

“People often talk about how O’Connell’s changed in the last few years and it’s not because of procedure, policy or a way of doing things, it’s because we expanded our population to include more people who have the inherent dignity given by God. And it’s a much more joyful place,” Patton said.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019