Exceptional Academy plans walk for inclusion

The Oak Harbor school district is hosting an ally walk from 4-5:15 p.m. on Oct. 21.

The Oak Harbor school district is hosting an ally walk in honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

The Imagine Inclusion event is taking place from 4-5:15 p.m. on Oct. 21. The walk starts at the Oak Harbor High School and ends at North Whidbey Middle School.

The event is put on by Oak Harbor school’s Exceptional Academy, which serves students aged 18-21 who have completed their high school requirements and need some assistance transitioning into adulthood. Exceptional Academy students have intellectual, cognitive and physical challenges.

“It’s important to acknowledge a community that’s not often acknowledged,” said Susan Armstrong, coordinator for the Exceptional Academy. “We want to make sure we’re doing that and doing that respectfully and in a way is kind of fun because we like to have a good time here.”

Armstrong prefers to use the word “exceptionalities ” over “disabilities” because the prefix, “dis,” is negative, meaning “not” or “none.”

“Our students aren’t lacking anything,” Armstrong said. “For someone who, dressing every day is a challenge, brushing their teeth every day is a challenge, for them to get up, come to school, get jobs. They’re anything but less. If anything, they’re more.”

The Imagine Inclusion event is to acknowledge those students and to bring awareness to inclusion in the workplace. All Exceptional Academy students complete internships where they work for businesses in Oak Harbor.

“By having internships, they learn all those skills that go into being a successful employee before they’re in the high-pressure stakes of having that paid position,” Armstrong said. “This gives them that freedom to learn in a safe environment.”

The internships also help students decide what career they want to pursue.

Armstrong said that while Oak Harbor is an incredibly open and inclusive community, some employers struggle to see the value in people who have exceptionalities.

“We make that bridge,” Armstrong said. “We show them how valuable our students are.”

The other two focuses of the Exceptional Academy are independent living and community access.

“We really want our students to live as independently as possible,” she said, explaining that students learn such skills as doing laundry and cooking meals for themselves.

In addition, she stressed that being part of the community is invaluable.

“We want to make sure they know their community,” Armstrong said. “Life isn’t just about work and home. They need to go out and socialize.”

The walk will have a police escort and the entire community is welcome to join.

“Anyone who believes in inclusion, that’s who we want there,” Armstrong said. “And those who are wondering about inclusion, we want them there, too.”