by Shawna Benson, Teaching Diverse Learners Center at OCALI
“Over the years, I have seen a transition in people’s understanding of what teaching and supporting students with disabilities means. While OCALI’s early work focused on supporting the needs of students with autism and low-incidence disabilities, we’ve really evolved into supporting people with complex needs across the lifespan – from birth to adulthood, including important transition points in their lives.”
With an extensive background in higher education, Shawna Benson brings a unique perspective to her role as the program director for the Center for Teaching Diverse Learners (TDL) at OCALI.
“While the Center does a lot of work in the academic world, we also strive to offer big-picture thinking about access for people with disabilities, whether it’s learning, working, or living their best lives. I really want people to know that we support a wide range of learning environments, an array of learners, and all facets of education to ensure an equitable learning experience for all,” says Shawna.
The Center for TDL provides professional development, technical assistance, consultation, and resources for educational agencies, programs, practitioners, and families working to improve the quality of life and learning for individuals who have significant cognitive and low-incidence disabilities. The Center also offers guidance to professionals and families with a focus on standards-based planning and instruction.
“Right now, Ohio’s extended standards are being revised. To help support the Ohio Department of Education’s release of these standards, we’re creating companion resources designed to help educators extend the standards with learning progressions. Our goal is to have these resources available by fall and get them into the hands of as many educators as we can.”
The Center has also created parent and family resources to help them better understand and navigate the education system. “Parents often have lots of questions about how to access supports. Our family resources help them better understand what is being taught, what the expectations are by grade level, and alternative assessments available.”
Shawna credits much of OCALI’s growth over the past 10 years to the diverse relationships and partnerships that have been created.
“I was originally hired as a regional coach for OCALI, and over the years, my role has transitioned as the organization has grown and expanded its services. Much of my early work focused on creating partnerships across the state—with school districts, State Support Teams (SSTs), the Ohio Department of Education, colleges and universities, and many more. These relationships have contributed to OCALI becoming a trusted partner and respected resource across the state,” says Shawna.
“OCALI is often called upon because we can get to the root of the system and see what is having an impact. In the early days, we were trying to get our foot in the door. Now, we’re invited to the table for important meetings and conversations. Relationships matter.”
While Shawna is a “team of one” in the Center for TDL, she never feels that way because of the internal and external support she receives. “OCALI has such a passionate staff and we truly keep each other going, which creates a positive energy. We’re all working toward the common goal of bettering the lives of people with disabilities. We’re all driven by that and it’s evident by the service we provide and the growing demand for our support and resources.”
When asked about how she is helping to share and spread OCALI’s mission of inspiring change for people with disabilities, an immediate example came to mind. “Initially when I work with teams, there’s no question about their desire to provide equal opportunities and access for all students. What I see over the course of working together is that people discover that their practices or resources don’t always enable equitable access for all students. What is inspiring to see is the questions they ask become different and then their conversations change, which ultimately leads to change in instructional practice. By working in teams, we are able to make an impact on a larger scale.”
When Shawna is not working, she spends most of her time with her husband Duane and daughter Daila and their new furry friend, Remus, a Scottish terrier. Together, the family takes care of their three homesteads – a main house, one of their family’s farms, and a tiny house in Urbana, Ohio. Two of the three are historic homes, which they have restored and refurbished. She also enjoys collecting antiques, which she uses in her decorating and home design work. Shawna also loves gardening, spending time in the woods enjoying nature, rocking on the front porch, cooking, building her faith, and spending time with family and friends. She and Daila love reading and collecting great books. The family also loves to travel, especially returning to their favorite beach in North Carolina each year.