• Stephen Fowler

Special Needs Programs | Team Building Activities | Inspirational Movies

Updated: Jul 1, 2018

Executive Summary

  • Invitation the the Dance is a documentary film that follows special needs adults through their innovative training at a local ballet academy.

  • The film has value to the following organizations and why:

  • ----- Corporate Human Resources departments and company training staff can use the film as a tool for Team Building Activities.

  • ---------- In the corporate world teamwork is essential and any team member, due to personal circumstances may, temporarily, become a special needs colleague. This film can introduce the concept of teaching coping skills to team members, skills for those experiencing a problem and skills for the other team members.

  • ----- Special Needs Organizations can use the film to educate boards of directors on the advisability of instituting innovative programs for special needs adults

  • Call us to lease the film, engage a facilitator for training or speaker for your professional meeting or conference. 615-522-2939

Now the details that could change your corporate culture or special needs organization forever.

Each day in our country, and indeed around the world, conscientious professionals are striving to offer more meaningful, inclusive life experiences for those with special needs. 

At the same time, the mainstream corporate world is striving to balance quality, higher productivity, social responsibility and ecological stewardship in an environment of global competition.

How and what, you might ask, do the above two statements have in common?

Lamont is getting ready for class

Today in South Carolina, a politically "deep red" state, a public agency and a private organisation are working together on a truly remarkable project.

Each week intellectually challenged adults are brought to a ballet  academy and given ballet training. The outcome of the project, one of the most innovative special needs programs anywhere, is changing lives every day. Those lives are not just those of the adults with special needs but also the lives of their families and the professionals who work with them. 

To tell the story of this amazing partnership and its innovative work a documentary film has been created. Through the lens of the camera we are allowed to view this amazing work and the heartwarming results.

Those involved  in the project assumed that a documentary film would be a "feel good" model for special needs programs. It is. As it turns out, however, the film has other valuable uses. In the corporate world the evolution of  diversity and inclusion training, team building activities and Crew Resource Management has created a need for effective, professionally produced training materials. This film can help Human Resources professionals capture the attention of their associates and convey the desired message in a more subtle way and with longer lasting results.

Here are the details.

The documentary film is entitled Invitation to the Dance.

We may think that we are sufficiently educated and empathetic about the limitations that are a part of the daily lives of adults with different needs as well as the challenges facing the direct support professionals. We probably aren't very aware at all.  The use of films like Invitation to the Dance enables us to become more aware of different communities, to feel better about ourselves, and to improve lives and corporate cultures.

All of our lives have been touched by acquaintances or family members with special needs. We knew them in school. We may not have known their family or their home life situation or their daily struggles away from school. We knew they were transported to and from school on a special bus with other kids with disabilities. It is common for us to lose contact with these classmates. It usually isn't because we lose interest in them. It isn't because they move away or have interests different than our own. It is usually because we move on to college or more conventional jobs and we simply do not travel, work or play in the same circles. We might find ourselves asking a former classmate "whatever happened to "John" or "Sally," - the kids we saw and sometimes befriended in the special education classes?" It is likely our classmate will not know and the question will go unanswered. But make no mistake, the family of John and Sally know exactly what happened to them. They are presented with unique challenges every day.

During school days John and Sally had opportunities to interact with many different kids. Sure, they had limitations. Everyone knew they had limitations. Regrettably it was not uncommon for the bullies to taunt or humiliate kids like John and Sally but at least some kids stuck up for them, sometimes.   So John and Sally  followed a path that has been taken by millions of children with disabilities who have become adults. They are enrolled in programs that help enrich their lives. They are shepherded through life by caring professionals who use every resource at their disposal and a massive amount of creativity to enrich each day for John and Sally. But, to be sure, they are in a special world. It's a world that is frequently overlooked by the rest of the population. That isolation tends to encapsulate the lives of adults with special needs. Their world is more predictable and, regrettably, often less fulfilling than it could be.

"Everybody in life has limitations...everybody."

Are there days when you are distracted by family problems? Maybe your child is being bullied at school. Maybe your spouse has told you that they intend to pursue a divorce or you are tending to a sick mother or father. On days like these, are you giving 100% to your job and your teammates at work? Of course not. What if every company promoted team work to include recognizing teammates who were struggling with a problem and encourage colleagues to pitch in to help that person cope? Maybe even just a "How are you today?" and an encouraging word. There would have been a time, before team building was popular, that the afflicted colleague would be criticized, reported and shunned. Who benefits from such an approach? No one. Not the struggling team member. Not the team. Not the company or the company's customers.

It is easy to take a critical, indifferent approach to our colleagues and fellow citizens who are having a bad day. We see it demonstrated all the time. If you have someone serving you in a dismissive way or, maybe, even rudely, have you ever become angry and lashed out? Have you ever tried sympathetically asking "Are you having a difficult day?". You won't see perfect results with either approach but the chances of diffusing the uncomfortable situation, restoring good service and feeling better are much higher with the more caring approach.

For three decades I was an airline pilot. The environment in close quarters, with fuel running low, bad weather and 300 souls depending on all of us to be at our best can be very challenging. If one of our pilot colleagues is having a bad day, and we all do sometimes, she/he needs coping skills and the rest of us do too. We must exercise those coping skills immediately. There is no time to discuss the other pilot's problem behavior over lunch or during a break. Time is of the essence. That is why airlines adopted the NASA program of Crew Resource Management. CRM has been used and improved now for over 25 years and air safety records show the benefits.

In the film Lena Forster, the International Ballet Academy director and primary instructor to her special students gives powerful lessons on CRM without even knowing that is what it is called. She would describe it as "patience"and "respect". Of course it is. Patience and respect are key components in CRM. Without those two foundation blocks, no progress can be made. During a CRM or team building training session, a good facilitator can take these elements of the film and relate them to good team practices on the factory floor or the retail counter. 

Ah ha! People  who need compassionate treatment are not confined to those who are diagnosed with special needs at all. To quote Carmen, a student featured in the film Invitation to the Dance "Everybody in life has limitations...everybody."

What happens when a "fairly strict ballet teacher" opens her studio

doors to a group of adults with disabilities?

The experiment that started in Greenville, South Carolina between International Ballet and Thrive Upstate was a journey into uncharted territory. No one knew how a group of adults with disabilities would interact and follow instructions given by a professional ballet teacher. No one knew how the adult students would interact with each other during ballet training. No one knew how the adult teachers and volunteers would cope with and be received by their special needs students.

Was it Successful?

Quoting Lamont, one of the adult dancers with special needs who participated in the program,  "Ballet is my life." There is hardly anyone who would meet Lamont and expect him to know about ballet. That ballet has become his "life" is nothing short of a massive social success. Think about the different things that go into that statement. He enjoys the diversion from the routine days. He enjoys the training. He enjoys the respect he receives from his teachers, his class mates and the audience when they perform on stage. No matter how many inspirational movies you have seen it's hard to imagine the joy it brings to the viewer to see and hear, in the words and smiles, the impact on so many delightful people.

Almost everyone associated with this project expected that programs for special needs adults, if successful, would be heralded within the special needs community. Maybe, if local administrators and program directors have the resources this program in some form could be replicated in other parts of the country or the world. What no one really expected was that programs for special needs adults would have applications in the corporate world. Except for a very few progressive corporations, special needs adults are relegated to institutional programs and rarely are integrated into the conventional corporate work place. In corporate training programs, human factors, diversity and inclusion training are more likely to deal with specific operational tasks and difference in ethnicity and culture. It is less likely that corporate training approaches diversity and inclusion training from the point of view of having special needs work colleagues or customers. It would be even more rare to see the corporate world using activities for special needs adults to create team building activities for work or diversity and inclusion training.

From the Special Needs Community's Point of View let's look at the benefits of having a weekly diversion for their clients.

After viewing Invitation to the Dance it's easy to see how this falls into the category of inspirational movies. But, more importantly, this documentary film provides visual and anecdotal evidence of real improvements in the lives of the students. Let's look at some of the obvious benefits that the ballet training has provided.

  • Clients track the days of the week and time of day in anticipation of their next ballet lesson. They are more engaged in everyday life partly because they have something regularly scheduled that they look forward to doing.

  • The teamwork that is required and fostered in the students  by the ballet instructors and volunteers helps build collegial relationships.

  • The adult students who heretofore showed extreme reluctance to participate or communicate within group activities began not only to participate, but started showing leadership qualities when other students struggled with instructions. In some cases the opportunity to assist a student new to the ballet class created a social turn-around for the student lending the assistance.

  • Interaction with dance professionals and the ballet cast during ballet company rehearsals was a source of pride and clearly enhanced self-esteem.

  • Group, physical training improved overall health, reinforced the team concept and gave some team members opportunities to excel even though they were relatively weak when it came to coordinated dance. For example a participant may have difficulty with a dance step but thrives on placing the exercise mats on the studio floor for all of his teammates.

So, for organizations and institutions that are charged with organizing and administering programs for special needs adults we encourage you to use the film Invitation to the Dance and the activities for special needs adults that it documents as a role model for new and or enhanced programs for your clients. The filmmaker, Sarah Shoemaker, is also the marketing director for the International Ballet Academy that hosts and trains the students. She is available for consultation.

Now let's look at the film as a tool for human resources professionals.

Human Resources professional, how many times have you been asked by one of your superiors to prepare team building exercises for work, whether it be for new hires or newly created teams of company veterans? This film, Invitation to the Dance is a perfect "off the shelf" tool for those exercises or seminars.

The increased focus today  is "crew resource management" or "diversity and inclusion training". Those are but two of the  the similar training programs designed to meet stricter goals of a more harmonious and socially responsible workplace. In the case of production facilities or, in my case, airline flight operations, a more harmonious workplace is a safer workplace. A safer workplace translates into a more productive, profitable workplace. In airline operations, truck driving, maritime operations, crew resource management is vital to promoting mutual respect among crew members, notwithstanding an order of precedence due to rank and seniority. But it has been proven over and over that hundreds or even thousands of lives have been saved by the adoption of the NASA model of Crew Resource Management. CRM came about when NASA realized that disagreements in space could have disastrous consequences. This film is a good part of a team building program and CRM training.

So how does an innovative documentary film about special needs adults and ballet training help me at XYZ company?

There are several good answers to the above question. For organizations that have direct contact with retail customers the film Invitation to the Dance gives insight to your associates regarding the intellect and sensitivity of special needs adults. Adults with disabilities have disposable income.  The companies that do a better job orienting their business and training their associates to serve the needs of adults with disabilities will be recognized as socially responsible as well as  be more profitable.

Another benefit of the film for human resources professionals comes from demonstrating empathy for those who are tagged with extra challenges. Many of your corporate associates either have family members or neighbors with special needs and are personally familiar with some of these challenges. By taking the time to include a short film that demonstrates the "humanity" of your organization, associates' attitudes about their company can be improved thus improving productivity and retention.

Finally let's think about the teams in a large manufacturing organization. More and more teams are defined to assume responsibility for certain aspects of a manufacturer's goal. Informally everybody on the shop floor should be considered a team. Since we all occasionally suffer unexpected physical or emotional trauma, production outcomes, including safety, can be demonstrably enhanced if associates are trained to recognize, have empathy for, and assist team members who are having a bad day. Going back to a field in which I am very familiar, I can remember observing one of my pilot colleagues just as we were to begin the ocean crossing portion of our long journey. He did not look well. I had flown with him before and he was always jovial and animated. Tonight, just as we were entering one of the more dangerous phases of an international flight he looked distant, was unusually quiet and did not have good skin color. As a result of Crew Resource Management training my other pilot colleague and I persuaded this pilot to utilize our direct line to our aerospace medical team. Based on his symptoms they concluded that the safest course of action was to make an unplanned landing where a relief pilot could board and allow our colleague to seek medical attention.

The same kind of "looking out for your buddy" has unlimited opportunities in the corporate world. CRM makes all colleagues team mates regardless of rank or seniority. That is the beauty of it. The financial and publicity disaster at #Starbucks might have been avoided if all team members felt empowered to offer suggestions without retribution. Hopefully, also, a team-playing manager might have asked one of his team to offer a second opinion before calling the police. Making the decision circle larger can often avert a disaster while making the team stronger and more cohesive.

One of the best ways to initiate or continue such training in your organization is to use this inspirational movie which demonstrates how adults with substantial intellectual and emotional disabilities can individually benefit from teamwork and inclusion and, together, can create a program that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Remember the words of a lovable character in this film, Carmen:"Everybody in life has limitations...everybody." Now we are reminded that even people who have no  permanent disabilities may be experiencing serious temporary difficulties. A workforce or "team" will be more effective, productive and profitable with happier "team mates" if awareness is fostered from top management. The role of the HR professional in this transformation is made much easier and more effective with creative and technically polished films like Invitation to the Dance.

The filmmaker, Sarah Shoemaker, would be available to discuss the genesis of this program and be a facilitator for a program hosted by your human resources department. She is also available to present this film to your professional conferences.

Phone for a consultation and pricing. 615-522-2939

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© 2018 by Invitation to the Dance Film