BUILDING BRIDGES OF SUCCESS

By Jana Cunningham, communications specialist, University Marketing and Communications

Ben Tillotson received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in special education at the University of Utah. He currently teaches 18-22 year olds in Salt Lake City School District’s new transition program for students with severe disabilities. Tillotson is also the co-founder and director of the Utah Inclusive Arts Festival, which will be held May 18-20 at the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts and Learning Complex.

He took some time away from his busy schedule to answer questions about his education, career and the festival.

Q: Why did you choose special education?

A: I originally wanted to be a high school counselor, but wanted to get some teaching background first. There wasn’t a field that I felt too inclined to teach other than geography, but I had some minor experience with special needs and I thought it would be a fun career. I also wanted a career with job security and that would provide my family and I with good benefits.

Q: What grades have you taught?   

A: I taught for two years at Highland High as an assistant in a special education class, four years at Meadowlark Elementary teaching 3rd – 6th graders in a Functional Life Skills classroom and I’m currently teaching 18-22 year-olds in Salt Lake City School District’s new transition program for students with severe disabilities.

Q: What is a transition program?

A: Under Federal Law, students with disabilities, if unable to obtain a high school diploma, may receive special education services until they turn 22. These services are designed to help transition the students into adult living according to their individual needs. Historically in Salt Lake City School District, the students with the most severe disabilities have remained at the high schools, which means they can be in the same class for eight years. The SCORE program was created this year to meet the unique and individual needs of this group of students.

Our day consists of UTA training, job training, recreational opportunities and other experiential learning opportunities. The students range in abilities from those limited to wheelchairs and intensive medical needs to those who need minor supervision at job sites. We currently serve about 19 students.

Q: What does SCORE mean?

A: SCORE is an acronym I came up with for our new transition program that summarizes our objectives, “Self Advocacy, Community, Occupation, Recreation, Education.”  Our mission is to help our students learn how to transition into society and to educate our community on how to work, communicate and socialize with individuals with disabilities.

Q: What is the mission of the Inclusive Arts Festival?

A: Our mission is to build bridges of success for all individuals. There’s a lot of research about how the arts are beneficial for learners, especially in understanding abstract concepts. As a group, we knew that we wanted to provide those with disabilities with greater access to the arts. Yet, we wanted to take it a step further. A large reason why those with disabilities don’t succeed in society is because those without disabilities often have limited experience with them. That is why, through the medium of art, we wanted to connect our community and build these bridges of success that would promote learning and a greater sense of community unity for those with and without disabilities. It has been amazing to see participates ranging in ages 3-75 of varying abilities interacting together in this fun format.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your career?

A: It’s dynamic. It’s always changing, always moving. There’s always something new to learn and something more to give. A teacher is someone who helps another find meaning in life. I count myself fortunate to have had a variety of teachers in my life who helped me to see my potential and find my purpose. Teaching is seriously the greatest profession. We professionally inspire.

Q: What advice would you give to students thinking about majoring in special education?

A: It is one of the greatest professions, but also one of the hardest. We do this because we love people and we love life. If you don’t love either, it may not be for you. It is not for the fearful or the unchanging or the proud. It is for the willing, the courageous, the humble and the kind. If you let it, it will change your heart, your mind and your life.