Ability Pittsburgh helps students sharpen life skills

“Enlightening and a great experience…I have learned more about the opportunities that are out there.”

This was the overall sentiment of the 350 students with disabilities who attended Ability Pittsburgh on April 16 at the Senator John Heinz History Center, a Smithsonian Affiliate. Coming from schools throughout the city, the students, aged 14 to 21, learned about the resources, services and opportunities available to them to sharpen the life skills necessary to successfully make the transition from high school to college and the workplace.

Photo: Students pose for the camera at Ability Pittsburgh. (Photo by J.A.R. Stout)


Ability Pittsburgh was modeled on the 2007 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Celebration at the Air and Space Museum, sponsored by the Smithsonian’s Office of Accessibility. “As part of its mission, SI’s Accessibility Program seeks to expand its national outreach to the museum community,” Director Beth Ziebarth said. “The goal is for the students to feel empowered and assertive; to move beyond perceived boundaries and to develop their full potential.”

According to Jennifer Brundage, Affiliations coordinator, “The stars aligned when Beth brought this idea to Affiliations. The Heinz History Center is a model Affiliate that was looking for a way to meaningfully engage the disability community in Pittsburgh. It was a perfect match.”

At the event, 50 community organizations spread out across four floors of the Heinz Center, organized around four themes. In “Transitions, Advisors, Leadership and Employment,” students met with representatives from organizations such as Smart Futures and Life’s Work, to learn about internships, mentoring, job training, resume review and interviewing techniques. “Assistive Technologies” introduced the newest ways that students can amplify their iPods, translate Web pages and enhance their mobility. “Healthy Lifestyles and Nutrition” allowed the students to practice games encouraging teamwork and learn about accessible programs offered through area sports leagues and the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Finally, students met community leaders and historians in the “Advocacy and History” module. American History Museum Curator Katherine Ott was one of the historians who shared “props” based on Smithsonian collections with the students. “As a curator, few things give me more pleasure than talking about artifacts with interested people,” Ott said. “The kids got hooked by a familiar object and started telling me about their experiences.”

A student asks Katherine Ott questions about objects based on the Smithsonian's collections.

A student asks Katherine Ott questions about objects based on the Smithsonian's collections.

Bringing “Ability Pittsburgh” to fruition was a cross-unit collaboration. The Smithsonian team consisted of Ziebarth, Brundage and Becky Pfordresher, assistant director of Foundation Relations in the Office of Development, who cultivated the critical involvement of the FISA Foundation and the Disability Funders Network, among other supporters. Together with the Heinz Center’s education department, the team organized a community advisory council that mobilized participation of students, volunteers and service providers. In preparation, Ziebarth and colleague Krista Flores led a series of training sessions on accessibility awareness. The team also tapped the expertise of Andy Pekarik of SI’s Office of Policy and Analysis, who organized a corps of evaluators to observe and interview the students.

The success of “Ability Pittsburgh” has inspired the Heinz Center to make it an annual event, and it will serve as a national outreach model. “This program directly aligns with the mission of the Heinz Center, and its impact will be felt for years to come,” Terri Blanchette, director of Community Programs for the Heinz Center, said. “We want to position the museum as a center for community engagement. We did that for the disabled community and for the city at large.”

Heinz Center Director of Education Ann Fortescue summarized the pro-gram: “For a change, the students were able to see adults with disabilities working in real-life situations. We moved them past a focus on their disability to talk about their futures.”

Posted: 28 April 2009
About the Author:

Jennifer Brundage is the national outreach manager for Smithsonian Affiliations.