Derrick Cogburn is advocating for the inclusion of students with disabilities through his roles as the executive director of the Institute on Disability and Public Policy at American University and as a member of the board of directors for Brendan Sailing. (Photo courtesy of Brendan Sailing)

By Mennatalla Ibrahim,
Special to the AFRO

The American University Institute of Disability and Public Policy recently partnered with the non-profit Brendan Sailing to host the second annual Navigating Differences Symposium on Sept. 9 at the Washington, D.C. school campus.

Brendan Sailing is dedicated to enhancing self-esteem and self-confidence in youth with learning challenges, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), through sailing programs in D.C., Annapolis, Md., and St. Mary’s City, Md.

This symposium was aimed at connecting the effective approaches for aiding this population that Brendan Sailing has developed over the years with the findings of researchers and academics in this field.

“The thought was: Let’s have a symposium where we can bring together professionals and academics, as well as occupational therapists, counselors, teachers, parents and participants, and we can all learn from each other,” said Charlie Arms, executive director of Brendan Sailing after the Sept. 9 event. “We’d love to connect with some of the schools that operate and serve this population during the academic year. We’re very open to partnerships and to offering opportunities for schools and programs to attend the symposium, so they can display what they do and really network and connect.”

The symposium was kicked off with a screening of the film “Normal Isn’t Real” by director and producer Krys Kornmeier, which showcases four stories from young adults with learning differences as they navigate success in work and school. 

“Listening to the folks on the film talk about the struggles they had as youth until they really found something they were passionate about and were good at really connects with what we do,” Arms said. “We hope to allow our participants to thrive and see that there are other ways to learn.”

Keiko Shikako, an associate professor at the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill University, served as a panelist, discussing some of her research in childhood disability. Her work focuses on building inclusive communities that recognize the human rights of children with disabilities and promotes the participation of children with disabilities in different life roles and activities.This was her first time collaborating with Brendan Sailing, and she said she was impressed with the outcome of the symposium.

“The participants had very pertinent questions and comments,” Shikako said. “It’s great to see everybody so committed to and already doing major work in the field of inclusion for persons with disabilities.”

Shikako’s involvement in the symposium came through longtime colleague Derrick Cogburn, an American University professor who also serves on the Brendan Sailing Board of Directors. As the executive director of the university’s Institute on Disability and Public Policy, Cogburn acted as a panelist and co-sponsor of the symposium both this year and last year.

In addition to the five panelists, 25 people attended the symposium, including parents, American University students, occupational therapists, academics, Brendan Sailing alumni and advocates. Though this marked a significant increase from last year’s symposium and encompassed every population they aimed to reach, Brendan Sailing hopes to see this audience exponentially grow in size in the coming years.

“For next year, we’d like to at least double [the number of attendees]. We don’t want hundreds of attendees because the whole point of [the symposium] is the interaction aspect, but we had about half as many as we would have liked. That is our goal,” Arms said.