A class where students with disabilities learn how to confront, deal with abusers

Recent graduates of IMPACT:Ability

After eight weeks of training, 16 students of Dorchester’s Community Academy of Science and Health (CASH), graduated from IMPACT:Ability’s abuse-prevention program at a cheer-filled celebration on June 13.

All of the students live with some degree of learning or physical disability, and participated in the program outside of their classes during the school day. The graduation marked IMPACT:Ability’s eighth year in the Boston public schools, where, through self-defense and self-advocacy training, they aim to teach students with disabilities to understand and prevent abuse.

The program was founded by Triangle Inc., an organization based out of Malden, Mass. that works to create more equal job opportunities for those with disabilities. As this increased independence could mean an increased risk of abuse, and with the knowledge that people with disabilities are more likely to experience abuse than people without disabilities (per studies done by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the National Institute of Justice), IMPACT:Ability was born.

“Everyone has the ability to be safe; everyone has the ability to protect themselves,” said Meg Stone, the director of IMPACT:Ability, at the graduation. “The IMPACT program exists to teach people the skills that help them assert themselves, protect themselves, and give people the tools to respond in the moment and do what they need to do to keep themselves safe.”

The event featured introductory remarks by Coleman Nee, the CEO of Triangle, and Robin Lee, the headmaster of CASH. “You all should be incredibly proud,” said Nee to the graduates. “Everybody should have the opportunity to be safe -- in their communities, in their homes, in their workplaces, in their schools. That’s what this program does; it helps people empower people, to be able to give them the tools that they need to keep themselves safe.”

The graduation showcased exactly those tools, as the students had the opportunity to demonstrate what they had learned through the program.
With some guidance from instructor Mandy Doyle, the students took turns fending off the “bad guy,” played by another instructor, Michael Perry, wearing sunglasses to show when he was in character. In scenarios ranging from uncomfortable to dangerous, the kids’ responses began with yelling “STOP” and putting their hands up to signal their discomfort to bystanders, and could go as far as physically harming their abuser.

Although the subject matter was serious, the students were having fun throughout the demonstration and, Stone confirmed, throughout the program as a whole. In one scenario, a heavily-padded Perry tried to take control of a student’s wheelchair, but the student locked the chair’s wheels and jabbed him in the eyes. As Perry fake-yelped in pain, the class erupted in laughter.

The program, which is offered in middle school and high school, was many students’ second time, and many expressed wanting to do it again. The past year was Nadjina Lamour’s first time in the class, and she says she now feels “prepared,” while Lee Jean feels like “a role model.” Elijah Chaney, who had taken the program in middle-school and is now 15, says the program helps him feel responsible for himself.

The students took the class of their own volition, and to the degree with which they were comfortable. In learning responses to inappropriate touching, each student had the option to express if they were comfortable with being touched, or if coming close to touching was preferable. They learned to report an offender’s appearance and actions to trusted people, and they learned appropriate responses to another person expressing that they were making them uncomfortable.

“If you’re going to expose folks to the ‘big bad world’ over there, you have to give them the tools to do so, whether they want to leave the community and do service programs or go to work,” says John Kaiser, the chief development officer of Triangle, Inc. “[IMPACT:Ability is] a really big part of our program that makes the rest of this go.”