Empathy Series Article #1: “A Look at Special Book by Special Kids”
“Research investigating the prevalence of bullying has found victimization rates to be over 50% for children with disabilities (Schroeder, Cappadocia, Bebko, Pepler & Weiss, 2014). As early as the preschool years, when compared to their neurotypical peers, children with disabilities (cognitive and/or physical) receive lower likability ratings from their peers and are sought out less often as friends or playmates (Huckstadt & Shutts, 2014).
In 2015, researchers Tharrenos Bratitsis and Petros Ziannas investigated the use of digital storytelling to foster social empathy in 3-5 year old preschool children. Through classroom observation, they found that those children who received empathy lessons through digital storytelling initiated a significantly higher number of empathetic actions towards their peers following the lessons, and that these actions only increased in frequency over time (Bratitsis & Ziannas, 2015). These results suggest that digital storytelling may be an effective, evidence-based method for teaching empathy to young children.
Chris Ulmer, former special education teacher, is using his own digital storytelling series, “Special Books by Special Kids,” to “interview individuals with a diagnosis (ie. mental illness, physical illness, cognitive disability, and/or physical disability) from across the world with the hope of spreading empathy and acceptance,” and “normalize the diversity of the human condition” (Special Books by Special Kids, n.d.). Each video interview is unique, educational, vulnerable, and real – giving viewers a chance to “walk in the shoes” of those living out their lives a little bit differently, even if only for a few minutes. Additionally, interviews often include eye-opening caregiver, sibling, and peer perspectives.
One question that Chris asks in almost every interview is: “If the world could know one thing about you, what would you want it to be?” (Special Books by Special Kids, n.d.). Through my personal viewing, I have found that the large majority of responses to this question fall under the blanket of: “That I’m just a person like you are. That it’s ok to come up to me and say hi and want to be my friend. That I just want to feel loved and accepted like everyone else…” Chris captions each SBSK video interview with his own thoughts and observations to point out important, teachable moments. His insight lays the foundation for critical dialogue; to provide us all with the tools to approach someone with differences in a respectful, knowledgeable, and most of all, kind way.
Chris closed a 2016 speech given at Google with powerful call for action, saying: “The only way to reverse what we see today in the news is by creating that sense of normalcy (of differences) and demonstrating how we want the world to be for our next generation” (Talks at Google, 2016). So, this summer, consider using Chris’s impactful “digital storytelling” platform, Special Books by Special Kids (SBSK), to start meaningful conversations about empathy and neurodiversity with your children, coworkers, and friends!”
By: Nicolette G. Granata, Vanderbilt University Class of 2019