Teaching kids with special needs photography skills
By Sue Baldani
When Jen Vogus’s son, Aidan, who is non-verbal, started kindergarten, she wanted to make sure the other children were able to get to know him. So, she came up with the idea of taking and captioning pictures of him doing things he liked and sharing them with his teacher and the class.
“The pictures were a way for others to see that Aidan is more like them than he is different from them,” says Jen, the founder and executive director of AbleVoices in Nashville. “It worked out really well for our particular situation and we were able to sustain it over many years.”
While on the board of directors for the Arc of Williamson County in 2014, she wanted to use her skills in teaching and photography to help others with disabilities. She had learned that the Arc occasionally put together a visual resume, or portfolio, for students aged 18 to 22 who had earned a special-education diploma in Williamson County schools and were currently enrolled in a four-year vocational based transition program. These portfolios included pictures of them at various job sites to show potential employers the types of job skills they had.
“I said to Sharon Bottorff, the executive director, ‘What do you think about doing a workshop teaching these young adults how to take better pictures so they’re better able to tell their stories?’”
Shortly after, Jen started teaching semester-long workshops, and in 2018, she decided to expand the curriculum. She implemented a methodology called Photovoice, which, she explains, provides cameras to any group that is underrepresented or that wants to share its views about a particular issue.
Many of the young adults really enjoyed these photography classes and wanted to keep them going, so she developed a photography club the following summer. In 2019, wanting to expand even more, she felt it was time to form her own nonprofit organization. And so, AbleVoices was born.
“I work with Marie Wicks, who is the Williamson County Schools transitional program coordinator,” says Jen. “She sets me up with a classroom and a teacher, and there are typically between nine and 17 students per semester.”
Since COVID-19 shut them down in March, she found a way to continue some of the classes virtually. “Last summer, I did a few with some young adults that weren’t able to leave the house because of COVID, and I did a summer-long outdoor photography club in person.”
Recently, she’s started a virtual Photography for Self-Expression course. “I provide videos that teaches them a photography tip, and we have a photo mission every week,” she says. “The pictures can just stir up emotions and memories and experiences that are all different to each person. So, it’s a really wonderful way to gain insight about our participants.”
The students get to show off their pictures in the lobby of the Williamson County Community Services Building, where Arc is located. “It’s just so awesome and so rewarding to see the skills they’ve learned. And it also gives them a sense of importance, as in, ‘This is my camera, and I’m a photographer.’”
Right now, Jen is applying for more grants to expand the amount of programs she can provide in the schools, and make the photography club, which does have a fee, more affordable for families. Donations are very helpful in making this a reality.
“It’s been really exciting for me, and it’s something I really believe in,” she says. “It’s been a lot of fun to see these young adults be able to express themselves visually through their images and provide them with another way to share about themselves with the world.”
Today, Aidan has graduated from high school and is in his first year of the transition program with Williamson County Schools. Even though he is now more interested in going on Instagram and doing other age-appropriate activities, his mother’s desire to help others tell their stories through pictures lives on.
To find out more about AbleVoices, or to buy merchandise from its online store or donate to this worthwhile organization, go to www.ablevoices.org.
Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in Brentwood, TN.