by Sue Ann Rybak
When Chestnut Hill resident Jaelyn Wingard was nine months old, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, but she never let that stop her from pursuing her aspirations. On Saturday, Feb. 18, the 16-year-old Springside Chestnut Hill Academy junior fulfilled another goal — to hold a conference focused on ability.
“I decided to create the SPARK (Students Partnering for Accessibility, Respect and Kindness) summit after years of thinking ‘How can I make the best of my disability?’” she said.
The three-hour conference, which was organized through SCH’s Sands Center for Entrepreneur Leadership (CEL) program, provided an opportunity for high school students to meet people with a disability and learn how to advocate “to make their communities more accessible.” The entrepreneur incubator program allows students to study a topic they are passionate about and pursue it through a nine-week entrepreneur boot camp.
“Those who are temporarily abled learned how to become an ally to the disabled community,” she said. “I invested my time in the SPARK Summit because I wanted to break the barriers and stigmas around disabilities. High school is such an important time in one’s life, and reaching out to those who are differently abled is crucial.”
Wingard said the goal of the conference was to teach people to “empathize and learn how to advocate for themselves and other people. One reason I wanted to hold the conference was to get people thinking about invisible disabilities. Many people who have physical, mental, emotional or educational differences often feel like the only person who has that experience. It’s invisible or sometimes visible, but it’s a very real identity that impacts them daily.
“In many schools, with emphasis on ability, particularly at rigorous institutions, many students experience this ‘only’ feeling. We have all in some way encountered this feeling of marginalization. How can we work together to fix it?”
Lilly Soroko, a junior at SCH Academy, said she had an “amazing time” at the conference. “Coming together with people from other communities to share experiences and collaborate on advocacy plans for the disabled community was really special,” she said. “I hope this event continues to grow because it highlights a very important but often forgotten aspect of diversity.”
Samiyah Wardlaw, another junior at SCH Academy who helped facilitate the conference, said that diversity conferences such as SPARK provide opportunities “to meet new people and learn new things. My knowledge about ability has deepened, and so has my understanding of people with different identifies. I am glad that I attended SPARK, and I am very proud of Jaelyn because she planned a great conference.”
Ella Pokrifka, a senior at Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, said the conference was “an eye opening experience. The stories that we shared with each other brought us closer together in a way that really warmed my heart. It motivated me to bring what I learned back to my school community.”
Bria Beauvais, a junior at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, said the conference taught her how to advocate for her peers with disabilities. “I think it is really important that the topic of ability is discussed within our communities because it affects us all,” she said. “I want to thank Jaelyn for exposing me to new knowledge about this branch of diversity and hope others will have a chance to receive this exposure as well.”
Unfortunately, the featured speaker and founder of Acting Without Boundaries, Christine Rouse, who has cerebral palsy, was unable to attend because of illness. Instead, participants watched a TED talk by Caroline Casey, who is legally blind and for years hid her disability, entitled “Looking Past Limits,” on the TED website at https://www.ted.com/talks/caroline_casey_looking_past_limits. Casey’s message was simple: “Be you. We all hide bits of ourselves … but what I have learned is the power of believing in the right thing has just given me the most extraordinary potential. What do you learn when you finally accept the power of yourself? You learn that you absolutely can (overcome any disability or obstacle).”
Sue Ann Rybak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org