A Local Nonprofit Delivers Higher Learning For Disabled Adults

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews  

Featured image: Spectrum University student Rashae Tillman hugs Marla Skinner, Spectrum University’s director of programs during a break in the class on Jan. 13. | Sara Minor 

Several weeks ago, Candra Chavda had an epiphany. Chavda — a dance and exercise instructor with the Music N Me program, which caters to young adults with autism and other developmental disorders, ages 20 to 40 — had been having some difficulty connecting with 30-year-old Christopher Joey Gray.

“Sometimes I feel that because he’s not giving me eye contact, he isn’t paying attention — but he is,” Chavda said during an interview earlier this month. “With Joey, I’d have to single him out, stand in front him and constantly say his name.”

One day, Chavda said, she noticed that as she said Gray’s name, he began to follow her closely.

“That showed me that everybody has a different learning style,” said Chavda, who teaches kindergarten full-time. “A different mold.”

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Monique Moore, left, works on math problems with Spectrum University instructor Linda Puckett, right, during a session on Jan. 13. | Sarah Minor

Marla Skinner, the program director and coordinator of special projects for Spectrum University — another Saturday program that, along with Music N Me, is operated by the nonprofit The Answer, Inc. — said that each of the roughly 10 to 15 adult learners in the two programs fall somewhere between low and high on the spectrum of cognitive functioning.

Their verbal skills also vary, she said, which can present certain challenges for instructors.

“People don’t really know patience until they’ve worked with someone with special needs, because most of their communication is non-verbal,” Chavda said. “Most of the adult learners have the same [cognitive ability] as my kindergarteners, but they don’t give me the same verbal affirmation. I don’t hear it, but I can feel it.”

Debra Vines, who founded The Answer in 2007 after discovering the dearth of services in communities of color available to families with autistic and developmentally disabled children and adults, has a mission to teach the whole world that kind of patience — starting with Proviso Township.

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Jason Harlan, center, works out a problem during a Jan. 13 session of Spectrum University. | VFP 

Vines, whose son Jason is developmentally disabled and a regular participant in her organization’s programs, has helped approximately 4,000 families in Proviso Township and Chicago’s West Side secure resources for children and adult with developmental disorders.

The Answer has established an autism resource center at the Broadview Public Library, trained area first responders in dealing with developmentally disabled individuals and even conducted training in local department stores to show retail workers how to handle those with autism, Down Syndrome and other disorders.

“There’s a need all over the place for these services,” Vines said in a recent interview. “We’re blessed to have tutors and teachers who don’t work for much, but more people need to know about these resources. There aren’t enough people making noise about this.”

Spectrum University story

Roshonda Childress, left, and Dreen Atkins work on math problems with the help of Spectrum University instructors. | Sarah Minor

Indeed, studies show that there is a significant race-based disparity among developmentally disabled children and adults — something that Vines said she’s committed to eliminating, at least on the local level.

According to 2014 data released by the Centers for Disease Control, African American children are 30 percent less likely than white children to be diagnosed with autism and

And a 2015 study by the Association of University Centers on Disabilities found that Latino and black adults with adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities had lower levels of income and education, and were in poorer mental and physical health than white adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Saturday University

Each Saturday session of Music N Me and Spectrum University is held inside of the Maywood Park District’s headquarters, 921 S. 9th Ave. Skinner said that Spectrum University has three instructors — all of whom have extensive teaching experience working in special education (two are retired while one still works full-time).

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Candra Chavda leads her Music N Me class through a chant before they begin a session on Jan. 6. | VFP 

Vines said that because of the need, she’s looking to replicate Spectrum University and Music N Me on Chicago’s West Side in the coming months. In addition, she said, she’ll be expanding both programs to accommodate young people, ages 13 to 18, in the spring.

Those developments translate into more of those Aha! moments that Skinner and Chavda say they, and participating families, experience each week.

“One student of ours had started talking at home,” Skinner said. “Her mom said that her child hadn’t even communicated with her until she started working with The Answer.”

Skinner said that the students are working on life skills this semester — learning to read sales papers, understanding exits in a facility in case of an emergency and counting currency, among other critical skills.

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Marla Skinner, right, leads a warm up before a Jan. 6 Music N Me session. | VFP 

Stephan Hughes, of Bolingbrook, said that the program has been so effective, he brings his son, Stephan, Jr., 33, all the way to Maywood each Saturday.

“He likes this and as long as it benefits him, I’m satisfied,” Hughes said. “I haven’t checked into any other place.”

Angie Smith said that her son, Corey, has started to show signs of progress with his writing. He’s starting to leave unprompted notes for his parents around the house, she said.

“What society and what we sometimes don’t understand is that they have feelings and the same behavior we have,” Skinner said. “It’s just the way you communicate with them.” VFP 

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