WACOSA’s connect academy Virtual program in st. cloud area receives 2021 life enrichment award from MOHR STATEWIDE disability organization

Media technology training for people with disabilities in St. Cloud is getting an added boost with some state-level recognition, a 2021 Life Enrichment Award from the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR).

The timing and expansion of WACOSA’s online portion of the effort was particularly helpful as COVID-19 restrictions kept many people home. “Disability programs across our great state excel at making these kinds of connections with people,” said MOHR President Julie Johnson. “We have learned that without us, many people suffer the negative effects of isolation.”

Advanced video and studio equipment are utilized by people with disabilities to connect with and train people who stayed home during the pandemic. “Video communication transitioned from being an emerging technology to being part of the fabric of our society,” said WACOSA Executive Director Steve Howard.

Individuals served by WACOSA help choose online course offerings that cover adaptive technology, self-advocacy, theater and health and wellness. Connect Academy has featured a weather reporter from Duluth, a national disability advocacy expert, hockey coach, grocer and a university professor. Individuals learn coding and animation, how to stay safe online and to responsibly use social media. In the future, classmates plan to build and write coding for robots and fly drones.

WACOSA partners with St. Cloud State University, Great River Regional Libraries and other organizations to enhance community integration and build “social capital” for employees and constituents, Howard explains.

Making connections benefits individual communities, said Johnson. “Creative, innovative services help people with disabilities to live their best lives.”

WACOSA’s program also has an employment component. A virtual job explorers class plans to take video equipment to area businesses for in-person interviews about future career possibilities, Howard explains. The hope is to use the technology and interactions it fosters to build bridges connecting WACOSA services to most every aspect of daily community life.

Connect Academy is the brainchild of WACOSA Day Supports Coordinator Mike Nichols, who has worked with video related technology and people with disabilities for more than 12 years. Individuals learn about work with multiple camera angles, graphics and animations to make the experiences fun and engaging, Howard explains.

WACOSA also utilizes volunteer Heather Mastromarco, who brings years of experience in professional theatre production, and once featured disability advocate and human services pioneer Judy Heumann, who is based in Washington, D.C. The fact that trainers need not by physically present but can connect online with class groups has expanded the educational offerings WACOSA can provide, leaders say.

The MOHR president said programs across the state nimbly pivoted and jumped into action in the COVID-era to ensure Minnesotans with disabilities retained access to meaningful services that are highly valued. “We have creative, innovative, and incredible programs, and team members who go above and beyond to make sure that people are supported and connected,” she said.

Johnson will present the Life Enrichment Award to WACOSA during an online session on Monday, April 19 at 3:45 p.m. Those who wish to attend are encouraged to contact Ann Kennedy at 320-420-9415, or akennedy@wacosa.org. Media are also invited to attend a “Media Makers” online class prior to the event, at 3:30 p.m.

WACOSA is one of nearly 100 members of MOHR. The association advocates for and supports its nonprofit members which provide meaningful services to persons with disabilities and communities across Minnesota. Members are committed to respect for each individual, a person-centered approach and expanding opportunities. More information is available at mohrmn.org.