Innovation in Action: The Ability Exhibit

Innovation in Action: The Ability Exhibit

Karen A. Myers
Maureen A. Wikete Lee
Saint Louis University


I learn from allies every day.

Allies teach me.

These allies are my students.



As the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 approached (July 26, 2015), I reflected on the 25 years I have been a disability educator and ability ally. Casey-Powell and Souma (2009) describe an ally within the student affairs community as “someone who acts to change policies, procedures, and attitudes on campus and to educate other dominant group members, in this case people without disabilities, about individuals with disabilities” (p. 150). I witness the innovative ideas and actions of allies each day on the campus of Saint Louis University (SLU), a Jesuit institution where I am a faculty member. Graduate students and student affairs practitioners work together to broaden our campus community’s awareness and understanding of individuals with disabilities, as well as provide opportunities for the development of allies within our university and in the St. Louis community. Examination of, and reflection on, personal awareness and attitudes regarding disability and disability issues occur in coursework and through the continued growth of the student project Allies for Inclusion: The Ability Exhibit.

Within the graduate course I teach, Disability in Higher Education and Society, students are challenged to unpack their multifaceted roles as allies within the university and community. This process is individualized, nudging each student forward in developing self-awareness and advocacy skills. Casey-Powell and Souma (2009) make recommendations for actions regarding graduate students and student affairs professionals. One suggestion includes:

Student affairs units should facilitate programs and workshops that promote and appreciate diversity while challenging some individuals to learn more about themselves and encouraging others to promote an understanding of individuals with disabilities. Diversity challenges stereotypes and allows others to communicate more effectively with individuals of various backgrounds. (p. 165)

The faculty of the School of Education at Saint Louis University has supported graduate students in such innovative work in the development of the Allies for Inclusion project.

Allies for Inclusion Overview

In 2010, graduate student Anne Marie Carroll conceived the idea for Allies for Inclusion: The Ability Exhibit. The project has evolved each semester as new groups of students enroll in the disability course. The student project has now become a national traveling exhibit hosted by over 40 institutions. The exhibit promotes the inclusion of people with disabilities while demonstrating and supporting the values of social justice, inclusion, and ally development. We are the proud recipients of the ACPA’s 2013 Student Involvement Program of the Year 2013 and the Jesuit Association of Student Personnel Administrators’ 2012 Ignatian Medal for Outstanding Campus Program.

Through generous donations and grants, the exhibit’s concept has expanded to include an Ability Allies K-1 edition for kindergarten through first grade students. Also, through a United Way student grant, an Ability Allies Committee is conducting Ability Ally workshops similar to the Safe Zone program model, which provides lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer awareness and ally training workshops. As part of the Saint Louis University School of Education’s strategic plan, disability education was identified as a priority. Evidence of this commitment to disability education is the development of an Ability Institute, which will include degree programs, disability research and assessment, and Allies for Inclusion projects.

With service and reflection as central to Jesuit values, the Allies for Inclusion exhibit clearly is connected with the Jesuit objective to develop men and women for others. For a service-learning project in my Disability in Higher Education and Society graduate class, students set up, participated in, and dismantled the 400-pound, 10-station exhibit on our campus in order to create a promotional video. The value of the service-learning project was its connection to the themes of social justice, inclusion, and ally development, along with the opportunity for students to actively engage in service and share their reflections. Such reflection is demonstrated through a colorfully descriptive account from a student in my Disability in Higher Education and Society course, Maureen A. Wikete Lee. Her words encompass the true meaning of Allies for Inclusion through a social justice lens.

Reflections from Maureen A. Wikete Lee, Graduate Student

As an early childhood educator, I most often considered inclusion in terms of creating a learning environment in which all preschool students and staff are ensured access, participation, and support (DEC/NAEYC, 2009). My personal lens regarding inclusion has expanded throughout our course. I now think about adults, especially university students and personnel, as I develop course assignments, facilitate discussions, and navigate our campus. Our work to set up the Ability Exhibit for the creation of the promotional video has provided me with an incredible opportunity for personal learning and reflection. The following describes my thoughts on the inclusive nature of Allies for Inclusion: The Ability Exhibit.

As we gathered to set up the exhibit, I was eager to get to work. I looked forward to experiencing the exhibit for the first time and being part of a campus-wide program to promote awareness of persons with disabilities, disability issues, and what it means to be an ally. The project leaders had a clear vision for the events of the day, and I wanted to contribute to keep us on schedule. Our class formed a strong sense of community throughout the semester; this was evident as we worked together trying to figure out the best way to set up the exhibit stations. The group was productive and worked with a light and fun sense of exploration as each station was unpacked and assembled. Teams worked together to set up laptops and projectors and create appealing visual displays. I was pleased to participate in a variety of ways, including moving furniture, steaming the camera backdrop, setting up stations, posing for promotional photographs, and recruiting student participants to view the exhibit and share testimonials of their experience for the video.

We worked on set-up until the moment visitors arrived. Mary Bruemmer, former Saint Louis University Dean of Students, longstanding member of the Saint Louis University Women’s Council, and founder of the Saint Louis University Women’s Commission, made an immediate impression as our first visitor. Ms. Bruemmer graduated from Saint Louis University in 1942 and has continued to be a part of the community following her retirement. I assumed the visitors would be undergraduate students. Perhaps I thought this because of my invitation to students in my undergraduate course or because of our invitation to campus organizations. I expected the exhibit to be an experience focused on education to enlighten young university students about a history they may have never studied. Instead, Ms. Bruemmer’s attendance made me recognize the exhibit’s wide audience and varied purposes.

The exhibit is a reflection on where we have been as a country and where we should be headed. It can be seen as a collection of past artifacts, present statistics, and future goals for our work as allies for inclusion. The undergraduate student visitors who followed Ms. Bruemmer learned about the history of the disability movement and gained a new sense of understanding about disability, as well as the continued call for inclusion in today’s society based on the displayed data, facts, and videos. My personal growth and increased understanding of inclusion goes hand in hand with my evolving social justice perspective.

Social Justice

I was introduced to Bishop’s (2002) model of ally development in our Disability in Higher Education and Society course. The model, rooted in the development of social justice allies, was introduced in course readings as also appropriate for the development of disability allies (Casey-Powell & Souma, 2009). The first step includes understanding oppression (Bishop, 2002); our work as allies begins here. We must challenge ourselves to deepen our understanding of oppression related to disability and in turn, as allies we must encourage others to join us on the journey as well. Our individual coursework and group discussions had led us to the moment in which we would engage the campus community and invite Saint Louis University students and personnel to deepen their understanding of oppression and continue to grow as allies for inclusion. What I had not anticipated was the impact of the exhibit on my understanding.

After I finished setting up the exhibit stations, talked with students, and posed for promotional pictures, it was my turn to experience the exhibit. I was surprised at the profound impact the exhibit had on me. By this time, I had seen the stations being set-up and was familiar with much of the information from course readings and class discussions. The quiet opportunities to see, hear, and read all of the displays at once were powerful. I was challenged to acknowledge the oppression people with disabilities in our own country faced and gained a deeper understanding of the surprisingly recent disability movement and resulting legislation in the United States. The testimonials and personal experiences shared, the staggering statistics, and the very personal “Do You Know Someone with a Disability?” and “Ally Pledge” stations brought the information and experience full circle. This experience brought the realization that disability issues not only affect persons with disabilities as a group and as individuals, but disability issues also impact me. I wondered what others were feeling and was eager to hear the responses recorded as part of the video testimonials.

Saint Louis University is an excellent sponsor for this exhibit as it fits with the university’s mission regarding social justice. Goodman (2001) suggests one motivation for becoming an ally is moral and spiritual values.  The network of Jesuit institutions at the high school and university level would be an excellent target audience for the exhibit as the students are likely to be motivated to become allies due to the institutions’ strong missions. I left feeling excited that we are increasing the likelihood others will have the opportunity to visit the exhibit in the future. We each bring our own perspective and view the exhibit through our personal lens. The exhibit may mean different things to different people, but I believe it is meaningful for everyone who views it. The exhibit offers an invitation to all who view it to engage in personal development with a pledge to be allies for inclusion.

Ally Development 

Essential to inclusion is the ongoing work of allies to challenge themselves personally, and to work for social change. Ally development is an ongoing process (Myers, Lindburg, & Nied, 2014), and our class continues to challenge ourselves to develop a deeper awareness of the perspectives of people with disabilities and an understanding of the harm in making assumptions regarding other’s perspectives and experiences. We are ready and eager to take action and engage the community in similar learning experiences. The opportunity to contribute to the viewing of Allies for Inclusion: The Ability Exhibit is our next step in the process. Our work will result in the creation of a promotional video and updated exhibit website to better share the message of inclusion to other universities, institutions, and corporations. During the service learning experience focused on promoting the exhibit, I progressed in my personal development as an ally.

As the time came to take the exhibit down and to pack it into containers, I thought of all the places the exhibit has traveled and of all the possibilities for future travel. I felt excited to think the K-1 edition might be starting on a similar path to promote respect toward people with disabilities, comfort in interactions with people with disabilities, and awareness of disability issues among young children. I was very excited to be a part of the development of the K-1 edition, which has since been piloted in six elementary school classrooms. I left the exhibit feeling a renewed sense of confidence in my work with the Allies for Inclusion K-1 edition and a sense of purpose toward our goal of promoting respect, comfort, and awareness. I strongly believe talking about similarities and differences with very young children is a developmentally appropriate way to start conversations that will lay the foundation for these ideas. It will be empowering for young children to have opportunities to share their perspectives and experiences, and powerful when they are encouraged to take into consideration the perspectives of others.

The graduate students’ sense of teamwork was apparent as we worked to pack the exhibit and prepare it for the next destination. Our Disability in Higher Education and Society class has become a community; our work began as one student’s project and now continues as the work of a growing number of allies for inclusion. I was eager for the promotional video to be completed along with the updated website and hopeful they would be effective tools to promote the exhibit.

Reflecting on the service learning experience, I realize my service has the potential to make a difference in the promotion of the exhibit. Although the volunteers relied heavily on those most familiar with the exhibit materials for instruction, we worked together to get the job done faster. We were allies together in an unconventional way; we were working to promote future awareness and education. The video will be essential in sharing the exhibit’s message to the public, so our work was not limited to the handful of visitors on that particular Sunday. The video will promote respect, comfort, and awareness each time someone views it on the website and at each future exhibit host site. The Ability Exhibit has now expanded into a variety of innovative programs designed by faculty and graduate students each semester, all promoting the development of allies for inclusion in our community.


Allies for Inclusion: The Ability Exhibit is an innovative project that has grown into a multifaceted program involving the work of faculty, graduate students, and university personnel. The exhibit is shown regularly at Saint Louis University to promote awareness within the community and has traveled to campuses, conferences, and corporations throughout the country. Last year, in celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act’s 25th Anniversary, it was hosted by the ACPA Convention in Tampa, FL, and at the NASPA Convention in New Orleans, LA, in addition to several corporations in St. Louis, MO. Since its inception, more than 50 United States colleges and universities have hosted the exhibit. Taking on a global perspective, the Ability Ally Initiative has been facilitated in Africa and India and was presented in Spain at Saint Louis University in Madrid, the University of Girona, and the Autonomous University of Barcelona in March 2015. Young children are now benefitting from the program through the piloting of a K-1 edition, and plans for developing an edition for medical professionals is underway. This innovative program has grown from graduate students’ active engagement in coursework. The Disability in Higher Education and Society course is just the beginning of students’ development as allies yet their work has already impacted ally development on Saint Louis University’s campus and beyond.

This promotional video is the result of the students’ work.

The Ability Exhibit can be reserved online at

Discussion Questions

  1. Is disability education essential for college students? If so, how can you promote disability education at your institution?
  2. What does being an ally mean to you? How will you be an ally for inclusion?
  3. Words matter. Attitudes matter. Behaviors matter. Common terminology used in discussing people with disabilities assigns a deficit identity to the disability population and obstructs societal change. Attitudinal barriers and negative language can impede change. Based on what you have learned about The Ability Exhibit, inclusion of people with disabilities, and ally development, discuss how you will be a change agent in the social construction of disability.


Bishop, A. (2002). Becoming an ally: Breaking the cycle of oppression in people (2nd ed.). Halifax, Nova Scotia: Fernwood.

Casey-Powell, D. & Souma, A. (2009).  Allies in our midst. In J. L. Higbee & A. A. Mitchell (Eds.), Making good on the promise (pp. 149-170). Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.

DEC/NAEYC. (2009). Early childhood inclusion: A joint position statement of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute.

Goodman, D.J. (2001). Promoting diversity and social justice: Educating people from privileged groups. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Myers, K., Lindburg, J., & Nied, D. (2014). Allies for inclusion: Students with disabilities. ASHE Higher Education Report, 39.5. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

About the Authors
Karen A. Myers, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Director of the Higher Education Administration graduate program at Saint Louis University and Director of the award-winning international disability education project, Allies for Inclusion: The Ability Exhibit and of Saint Louis University’s Ability Institute.  She has been a college teacher and administrator since 1979, is a national disability consultant and trainer, teaches her self-designed graduate course, Disability in Higher Education and Society, and is co-author of the recently released ASHE monograph, Allies for Inclusion: Disability and Equity in Higher Education.

Maureen A. Wikete Lee, Ph.D. completed her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction at Saint Louis University in May 2015. She is certified in early childhood and early childhood special education and taught in inclusive preschool, kindergarten, and first grade classrooms for 12 years.

Please e-mail inquiries to Karen A. Myers or Maureen Wikete Lee.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.


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