(RICHMOND, KY) – Gavin Barrows has firsthand experience with the challenges people with disabilities face as a busy student who uses a wheelchair.
The senior at Woodford County High School was a presenter for his school’s team at the Purpose in Action event at Eastern Kentucky University, a project aimed at figuring out solutions to make the workplace more accessible for people with disabilities.
Event planners invited two schools – Woodford County High School and Berea Community High School – to design a new work cell with Parker Hannifin that will better serve employees with disabilities. Work cells are spaces in manufacturing where the resources – including labor, equipment and materials – are placed in one area to streamline production.
The event was sponsored by Parker Hannifin, a California-based company with a factory in Lexington that designs motion and control technologies and systems, and Berea Makerspace, a community space where people can create things with woodworking, digital printing or other means.
Barrows expressed how important it is for people with disabilities to feel seen.
“I am so grateful people are actually wanting to include us actively in the workforce,” said Barrows.
The two prototype designs from each team were presented on April 26 in a competition where judges ranked them based on how effective they were at addressing issues like color blindness, wheelchair accessibility, dyslexia, blindness and cognitive disabilities.
The project was funded by the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) with money from the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) fund. Parker Hannifin was a corporate partner with KDE on the project and asked districts to participate. The project advances the KDE’s United We Learn principle of vibrant learning experiences through project-based learning.
“All students reap the benefits of ensuring students with disabilities have appropriate supports made available to them,” said Gretta Hylton, associate commissioner of the KDE Office of Special Education and Early Learning (OSEEL). “This project enables people with disabilities to enter the workforce in inclusive environments. It truly is a great way to connect all of these organizations and prepare our future generation to create the change we all want to see.”
Hylton added that the KDE is examining opportunities to continue this work.
“We really believe this will be a game-changer in the lives of our students,” she said.
Rita Payne is the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant coordinator with Berea Community High School and oversaw parts of the project for Berea’s team.
“Their views of what they have learned from this has been so impactful, way beyond what I even imagined initially,” she said.
Payne was part of a team that created a makerspace at Berea Community High School that was used for their students’ work in the Purpose in Action event and for other project-based learning opportunities. She said she saw students’ attitudes change toward school as they did the project-based work.
Some students even started to advocate for more project-based learning, Payne said, “so that it’s relevant and that it’s relatable and that it’s something they can use when they walk out of the high school.”
Isaac Skidmore, a junior at Berea Community High School, said he didn’t know what to expect when he started work on the Purpose in Action project a year ago, but now he has experience with engineering tools and video production that he plans to use in his career.
“Just being a part of this project, no matter who wins, is going to look great for any sort of portfolio or anything I want to pursue in my future,” he said.
The Purpose in Action event invited students with and without disabilities from the two schools to build the work cell prototypes. The students without disabilities had the opportunity to learn and better understand the challenges their peers face daily.
“Our students without disabilities’ eyes were opened,” said Courtney Nockuls, a speech pathologist at Woodford County High School. “They are now looking around wherever they go, saying, ‘Oh, this isn’t accessible.’”
As the students from both schools presented their projects, administrators and school personnel supervised with pride.
“These kids are my ‘why.’ Truly wanting to make a difference is why we start teaching in the first place,” said Conner Richardson, an agriculture and shop teacher at Woodford County High School.
Woodford County High School won the event, which included a $30,000 prize for the school. After the announcement of the winner, both teams came together and marveled at each other’s prototypes.
“It was amazing to collaborate with educators and students, with and without disabilities, to come together and look at life from a different perspective,” said Nockuls.