Today, host Lori Boll speaks with Katy Fattaleh who is the Chief Program Officer for The Nora Project. The Nora Project’s mission is to promote disability inclusion by empowering educators and engaging students and communities. Their work is important and can truly change the way we see disabilities and inclusion. Take a listen. Get inspired by learning more about The Nora Project today. 

Resources from The Nora Project:


Katy Fattaleh is a former elementary school teacher and K-8 instructional coach who now serves as the Chief Program Officer for The Nora Project. In her work at TNP, Katy is always searching for ways to bring essential curriculum and training to schools so that they can create environments where all students feel a strong sense of belonging.

Transcribed by Kanako Suwa

[ Introduction music plays ]

Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hour of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour. 

Lori: I couldn’t be more excited to bring you today’s podcast. I get to speak with Katy Fattaleh, who is the chief program officer for the Nora project. You guys, seriously, the Nora project is what we’ve all been looking for in our international schools or in our local communities. The Nora Project gives us a way to bring disability education into our schools, training students and teachers. Have a listen and I’m sure you’re going to be inspired, just as inspired as I am to bring the Nora Project to your own school. I could go on and on but it’s better if you hear it from Katie herself. So now, onto the show. 

Hi, Katy and welcome to the podcast! 

Katy: Thanks so much for having me. 

Lori: It’s a pleasure. Once upon a time, I was a programme leader of a small school educating expatriate children in Shanghai, China. And one of my students from that programme moved back to the United States and had a really difficult time fitting into the general education setting there. She was basically ostracized and not treated well by her peers. Then her mother discovered the Nora Project, the organization where you serve as the Chief Programme Officer. And the work your organization did, well, it was life changing for her daughter. The mission of your project, The Nora Project, is to promote disability inclusion by empowering educators and engaging students and communities, which… what a great mission. Reminds us of SENIA, really. How does the Nora Project empower educators by engaging students and communities? 

Katy:  First I want to say I’m so excited to hear the feedback from your friend. That thrills us, that we are reaching students and creating a more positive experience for them. You know our work for educators really starts with training and it’s comprehensive training that we believe that most educators don’t have access to in a lot of cases. 

So I am a teacher by training, I was an instructional coach for a number of years, and I never received any formal training in disability studies much less how to support all students in my classroom. I was a fourth and fifth grade teacher I worked with students with disabilities, I worked with students who had IEPs and 504 plans, And I never had more than a I think to our Workshop in college how to support students with disabilities.

Lori: Yeah! Isn’t that crazy? I was just doing research on this yesterday for a book I’m writing with a co-author, and a 2007 study said that the average teacher receives 1.5 courses in special education or disabilities, and I was thinking “well, I didn’t receive any… I received a 1 hour workshop on classroom management…” and nothing on disabilities. Now this was back, a long time ago… but still. What don’t they know?! 

Katy: Yeah! Things haven’t changed much! And I’ve had conversations with professors, current professors, who are, you know, a little bit more conscious of this, but they themselves also have not received the kind of training that would be able to inform a really strong programme that would support new teachers coming into the field, or teachers who have been in the field a long time doing graduate work, for example. I did my graduate degree and I also didn’t receive any education in disability studies or how to support students with disabilities. So this is a huge challenge and I think that in general, teachers who work in the general education space feel a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear around supporting kids with disabilities because they don’t’ feel like they know how. They don’t feel like they have the skills. 

And we’ve set up this system in education where folks who have special education degrees, you know, the name “Special Education” has its own set of issues and challenges around it, right? But folks that are specialists in this area are the keepers of the skills and the information on how to support kids with disabilities, and that’s just not true, necessarily. They may have more education, but they aren’t the only people in the school that have the ability to support all kids, right? So this puts the burden on special education teachers who probably have big case loads of students, who may not have sufficient time to work with colleagues to provide them with information they need to really support all students in the classroom in an inclusive and accessible way, and so we, at the Nora Project, have this mission of empowering teachers by providing them with a strong foundation in disability studies, led by disabled people. 

We really are trying to center the disabled perspective, so we bring in a lot of folks with disabilities and lived experience of disability to train our teachers every year. We are working really hard to make sure folks with disabilities are represented on our staff, and so we want to make sure that the education we’re providing to teachers are informed by the lived experience of disability so that teachers have the language, the tools, the skills, and the understanding that they need to create an environment where all students feel a strong sense of belonging. We also want to empower them by helping them to recognise ableism when they see it and to know what to do about it, to know how to dismantle it. And, by creating classroom spaces that feel good to them and feel good to all of their students, and you know, be able to challenge these structures that exist in these education systems and beyond their communities and families and beyond, to improve that environment so that it truly feels inclusive, so that it’s got you know, universal design approach. We really want folks to feel like they know how to take on this challenge of ableist thinking and ableist practices. 

Lori: Can you please explain ableism and ableist practices for our listeners who may, this may be a new term for? 

Katy: Just in general, ableism is a belief that people who are non-disabled are somehow have.. Their lives have more value than people who are disabled. And it is, you know, ableism occurs when we perpetuate stereotypes about disabilities, when we use language that is painting disability in a negative light, when we create or sort of sustain barriers to folks with disabilities to physical spaces to, thought spaces, etc. So when we talk about dismantling ableism, we’re talking about, first of all, helping people be able to recognise when it is occurring and when barriers exist, and then offering suggestions to them for how to eliminate those barriers or at least minimise those barriers. 

So when we’re doing our trainings in schools, in corporate settings and such, a lot of the times we’ll start with something simple like microaggressions. Which, even though they are sort of, small every day slights, they’re doing a lot of harm. WOrds matter and the language we chose to use is really important. The way we react to disability, the way we paint disability as something tragic or unfortunate, rather than something neutral because it’s a part of the human condition, like, any other identity part, those are… that’s where we start. Because that’s a simple thing. And then we can sort of get into the larger systemic barriers that are tied to ableism. 

Lori: Gotcha. So you have disability studies and is it a curriculum that you’re providing for schools? 

Katy: Yeah, so we have programmes for students in preschool through high school so we’re serving students at all levels. And we have a set of year-long curricular programmes that are social emotional learning based – they focus on friendship skills, empathy skills, and disability studies. Some of our programmes go deeper into disability studies and disability rights movements in the United States, disability history in the United States, but all of our programmes address disability as diversity. So we have our year-long programmes, we call those our life-cycle programmes and then we also have a set of shorter units called our Jumpstart units which are a great way for folks to incorporate the content we provide in a smaller and more flexible package. 

We recognise that it’s a really challenging time in schools right now and teachers are feeling, they’re feeling tired, they’re feeling overburdened and so we wanted to make it very accessible for folks to bring this content to their schools and be able to incorporate it in a meaningful way but one that’s a little bit more flexible than our year-long programmes.

Lori: Right. And would you recommend that schools take this on as a full curriculum rather than the classrooms of someone who might be supporting an individual with a disability? 

Katy: Yes, so actually, our problems are written for all students. That is the idea. That they’re taught in inclusive settings where students with and without disabilities are in a room together. And if we think about it, we know that in every classroom, there are students with and without disabilities, right? And so it’s important to us that folks recognise that this is not content for students with disabilities or for students without disabilities. It’s content for all students. Every kid needs to learn about disability because disability is a part of a lot of people’s identity. So we need to be able to understand it, just like we would any other identity part. 

Lori: Yeah. When I was teaching at an international school, I went into a high school classroom, their Theory of Knowledge classroom and spoke to them about autism spectrum disorder. And it was really interesting with 1 in 44 people being diagnosed on the spectrum how many of the students did not know anyone with disabilities, or they thought they didn’t know anyone on the Spectrum. And and one of the students in the class, she raised her hand afterwards and she said “this is ridiculous” so I said, “what’s that?” and she said “why do we not know anything about this? why am I 18 years old, I’m about ready to graduate high school, and this is the first time learning about individuals with disabilities because our school doesn’t have anyone with a disability in it?” And it was just fascinating to hear her perspective and she was mad, and I was mad with her, because international schools are kind of known for individuals with disabilities in the school. This is changing and it’s been changing slowly throughout the years, which is a really positive thing for all of us. So I guess my question here is, can our international school population take part in the Nora Project curriculum? 

Katy: Absolutely. Absolutely. We are currently serving schools in the Untied States and in Canada and we are working on expanding to the UK but we’re really excited about reaching folks all over the world. This content is important for everybody as I’ve said and so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be disseminated into the international schools around the world as well. And I’ll just, you know, that story, it hits me. Because we’re mad a lot, at the Nora Project too. The state of education is disappointing in a lot of ways, based on that story where we’ve created this segregated system where students with disabilities are removed from their peers and that is unacceptable. And so what we hope is that by educating folks about disability as diversity and raising people’s consciousness about that, that we can start to change hearts and minds and get school staff to question who isn’t in the room, you know? What can we do about it? How can we push the system and adjust the system so that all people, not just students, because you don’t see or hear about very many adults teachers with disabilities either. Schools are not very accessible places, and we have this stigma around disabilities so that people don’t feel comfortable disclosing if they have a non-apparent disability because there is so much ableism, sort of baked into our society. 

And so what we hope is that we can open the conversation around disability and take away that fear so that people don’t have to feel… some people even feel nervous using the word, disability. That’s why we have euphemisms like special needs and differently abled that the disability community really does not prefer. And we encourage teachers to say disability – just say it. There’s nothing wrong with it. There’s no reason not to. So you know, we’re really just trying to help people overcome and unlearn that. So that they can push on those systems and get that education into their schools. And actually, in the States, Illinois included which is where many of us at the Nora Project are based, we’re. There’s a law. That disability be something the kids learn about at school. And it’s an unfunded mandate in Illionois and in other states, and it’s something that is clearly important to include in school curriculum and yet we don’t have a lot of folks fighting and pushing to make sure that that’s happening. And to make sure that that’s happening inaa way that’s not doing harm to disabled kids. 

So a lot of the programems that we see that sort of check that box, which… that’s it’s own problem, are simulation based. And that simulation focused curriculum can really be harmful and help develop in non-disabled children’s minds this sense that I, for example, a lot of the time are doing common simulation activities like I’m going to wear a blindfold so that I can know what it’s like to be blind. Well, wearing a blindfold for 5 minutes certainly isn’t going to teach them what it’s like to be blind but it may make you think that you know what it’s like. It may make you think, like, oh thank goodness I’m not blind. What a tragic terrible way to live. That is not the thing we want kids to walk away with when they’re learning about disabilities.

We want them to learn that disability is identity, that a lot of poeple are really proud of that identity, that people with disabilities do the same stuff as people without disabilities, that anyone could become disabled at any time in their life, it’s the only thing that’s intersectional with every other identity part, so we want kisd to walk away with those, that perspective of disability and not one where they are saying “phew, thank god I’m not disabled”. Really really don’t want to perpetuate that kind of thinking. 

Lori: Wonderful. I was curious as well, so as you were talking, I was thinking about the diversity and inclusion movement happening everywhere in the world right now and how sometimes there is a focus on individuals with disabilities within this movement and sometimes not. Does the Nora Project have any sort of intersectionality with that curriculum? 

Katy: Yeah, so we have… we’ve noticed that too, that disability is very frequently left off the table, and we actually worked with an organisation to help us look at all of our curriculum through the DEI lens to ensure that all the students that are working with our curriculum see themselves in the curriculum. So we made some pretty big adjustments to the programme materials in 2020 and we also worked with one of our Nora Project teachers, Alex Parker, actually, who helped us create a tool called our “Pivot Points Companion Guide”, and that tool is designed to help teachers pivot conversations about disability to other aspects of diversity. Because we think that disability is a really great jumping off point to talk about other aspects of diversity, race, gender expression, ethnicity, etc. So lots of opportunities for rich conversations and you can use disability as the starting point. So we do have that tool available for schools to use, to sort of generate those larger conversations in the DEIJ space. 

Lori: That’s great. Very encouraging as well. Tell me about the video projects that you’ve done with some of your students. 

Katy: Yeah, so our flagship programme is called the Storyteller Project, and that programme culminates in the creation of… it’s a student created documentary. So the whole idea of that programme is for kids to use storytelling as a mechanism to better understand themselves, their own identities, and with their peers. So they are learning about one another through structured activities, lessons that… you know, they learn about disabilities, they learn about disability history, empathy… friendship. Best practices for inclusion. They learn all of this through direct instruction. But then they also are working in groups all year long. So teachers create groups within their classrooms and they have the opportunity to get to know each other better. Even if these students have been… typically these storyteller projects happen in 4th or 5th grade, but we’ve seen it all done in 4th through 8th grade and also have a high school version of the programme, and so even if these students have been working, learning together for many many years, we know that kids don’t get to know each of their peers in that group equally, right? It’s so, we create these groups so that students can intentionally get to know folks that they might otherwise not have spent a lot of time getting to know. 

And they do these activity days throughout the school year where the kids, based on what they learned about each other in the group, come up with ideas on what they want to do in unstructured time that is enjoyable and accessible for every member of the group. And so during those activity days, they’re collecting footage of those experiences and that footage is what ends up in the documentary films. They also interview one another, sometimes they interview a trusted adult, every child has the opportunity to name a trusted adult, that they can be interviewed about them, and the documentary sort of can spotlight each member of the group and share a little about them, and then students also reflect on the 3 essential questions of the programme, which are 

1 – what does it mean to be a good friend? 

2 – why is there no such thing as normal? 

3 – why do we share our stories with others? 

So the documentaries are a culmination of all of that. And we encourage schools to create a special event around those, whether that’s virtual or in-person, whether that’s a big after school event where the whole communities come together, or during the day with students in the school attending, but folks, you know, we provide decoration materials so that they can create a special event around the screening of these documentaries and make sure that every child gets the chance to walk the red carpet and share what they learned with their community. 

Lori: Wow, that sounds phenomenal. And I can just imagine the excitement at the school when these events happen. 

Katy: Yeah, I was just at an event on Friday and it was the kids just love, they just love sharing what they’ve learned and the process of reflection, what we hear from the teachers, is they take such ownership of the learning and they really go deep and reflect deeply on what they’ve learned on it. It’s transformative. We ask the kids to tell how has the Nora Project changed you in general and it’s so wonderful to hear kids say things like, I’m kinder to everyone, or I look for someone who’s not being included and try to figure out how I can include them. Or you know, other really important lessons about friendships that will apply for the rest of their lives. 

Lori: Right, it’s amazing! And earlier in the podcast you mentioned that teachers are not fearful of the students or the disability, they’re fearful, really, about their own ability, I guess, to be able to work with these individuals and say the right thing or do the right thing, and I imagine our students feel the same way. So by having this opportunity, it takes away that fear. 

Katy: Yea, yeah, what we want to do is normalise and demystify disability. 

Lori: Mmhmm. Yeah. So everything you all do there at the Nora Project, wow. Very commendable and amazing and I could go on and on… tell me how, how did you begin? Where did this all start? 

Katy: We had a really interesting journey over the years – we were founded in 2016 and our CEO is actually mother of her daughter Nora, who’s the namesake of the project. So Nora was the inspiration for the project but what’s interesting about our organization is it has evolved so much from the beginning. We have learned so much about the kind of work that needs to be done and the kind of work that we want to be a part of in terms of elevating disability as diversity and making sure that we are projecting that message to students and teachers. 

So the program came about because you know Lauren when Nora was born, Lauren realized she did not know really anything about disability as an adult. And reflecting on her experience growing up and thinking about how she never learned about disability in school, as you had mentioned, and she was looking around and wondering… Has that changed? and it really hasn’t, we’re still not teaching about disability in schools. So Lauren worked with her her cousin, our co-founder and they came up with the first iteration of the Nora Project, a program to teach about disability in school and since then we’ve grown from one program in one school to full suite of programs in well this year we worked with over 60 schools across the country and in Canada. And we’re really hoping to expand that. And so that was in 2016 when we started and here we are in 2022, trying to continue to grow not only our programme base but our training opportunities and trying to think about how can we make the most impact in the education space and beyond so we also offer corporate training and we have a disability inclusion 101 corporate trainig – it’s a great workshop that has been really impactful for a lot of companies that we’ve worked with so far, and we’re working on providing parent focused content to make sure parents also get disability education and disability studies and we’re always looking for ways to continue to serve our stakeholders to make sure everyone has the information that they need to be a part of that mission. 

Lori: Wow, that sounds wonderful. Well, thank you for coming today. 

Katy: Thank you so much! 

Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information including how to subscribe and show notes, please head to our website. That’s SENIAinternational.org/podcast. Until next time, cheers.