Palo Alto student finds her voice

Gunn graduate spreads the word on Disability History Week

As a Palo Alto student with disabilities, Sara Moussavian thinks history books should tell about Ed Roberts just as they tell about Martin Luther King Jr.

Moussavian has been persistent in contacting local educators to let them know that, starting this year, California officially observes Disability History Week every October.

"People should know about inspirational leaders like Ed Roberts," said Moussavian, a Gunn High School graduate who now studies at Foothill College.

Roberts, who died in 1995, is a hero in the disability-rights movement.

Severely disabled from polio, he shunned the role of victim while a student at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, asserting his right to accommodations needed to live a productive life.

Roberts went on to launch Berkeley's Center for Independent Living, a prototype for hundreds of such centers now operating around the world, including the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center.

Like Roberts, Moussavian endured bullying in her younger years in Palo Alto schools but developed strategies that helped her ignore it.

And like Roberts, she has begun to find her voice as an educator and advocate for people with disabilities.

Moussavian was in fourth grade when her family moved to Palo Alto and she was placed in special education at Barron Park Elementary School. Later, she was mainstreamed into regular classes, usually assisted by a classroom aide. She has had multiple surgeries for congenital problems and has difficulty using her hands, walking and processing lectures.

"I think the teachers were very understanding -- and to some extent, the students were as well," she said of her overall experience.

But bullying became something of a problem at Barron Park and later at Terman Middle School.

"At the beginning it hurt, but after awhile I learned to kind of let go of it," she said. "I developed a support system for myself -- friends who knew I'm not contagious and knew me for who I am."

But it wasn't until two summers ago that Moussavian decided to get active in speaking out for herself.

She and fellow students in a 2009 summer program in Sacramento decided to push a legislative resolution establishing the second week of October as Disability History Week. The campaign was coordinated with similar efforts in 23 other states, which now recognize some form of "disability awareness" in October.

In California, a joint legislative resolution proclaiming Disability History Week each year during the second week of October passed last year.

Moussavian has followed up by spreading the word to local schools and news outlets.

She recorded a radio show in Oakland, which is yet to be broadcast, and got an article in the Paly online publication The Voice.

"I wasn't much of an advocate in high school, but now I have a passion for making a difference for folks," she said.

Moussavian, who now lives with her family in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, hopes to move into a campus dormitory next year when she transfers to a California State University or a University of California campus.

For inspiration, she looks to people like Micah Fialka-Feldman, a special-education student who won a legal battle to live in on-campus housing at Oakland University in Michigan.

Moussavian plans to become a social worker to advocate for other people with disabilities.

"When I was in high school, I had teachers and aides who were kind of advocates, but going forward that's going to change," she said.

"In a four-year college and in the workplace, I realize that the advocate for me is going to have to be me, myself and I."

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Like this comment
Posted by Mike Wright
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 22, 2011 at 4:52 pm

What an inspiring story. Keep up the good work, Sara.

You're right: the best person to stand up for what you deserve is you.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 22, 2011 at 5:25 pm

A wonderful story - great work Sara!

Like this comment
Posted by Bullying Hurts Forever
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 22, 2011 at 6:09 pm

I do remember how kids treated her at Barron Park. They were so mean, but at the end she was stronger. I am glad she is standing up for herself. Great Job and Good Luck,

Like this comment
Posted by Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 23, 2011 at 1:57 pm

She is an inspiring person. UC Berkeley's dorms are especially well-equipped for students with disabilities.

Like this comment
Posted by Rachel Matta
a resident of Menlo Park
on Oct 23, 2011 at 9:31 pm

Love it. What a great role model!

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 24, 2011 at 11:39 am

There were a lot of girls in social leadership in Sara's class at Terman and Barron Park who are looked up to even now who could have made the choice to include her but did not. The large degree of mentoring they received from their parents did not include acceptance of Sara beyond tolerance. She is amazing to come out so strong and well-adjusted.

Like this comment
Posted by ex gunn parent
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 24, 2011 at 12:09 pm

I read this inspirational story and wonder if Sara was my daughter's classmate at Terman. Then I wonder how my daughter treated her. In my heart, I hope so much that my daughter reached out to her, but my fear would be that she maybe didn't. For those of you with kids still in school, you can use this story and Disabilities Awareness Month to have that conversation. I hope you do.
Way to go Sara. Thanks for hanging in there!!

Like this comment
Posted by Eva
a resident of Barron Park School
on Oct 24, 2011 at 1:51 pm

As a current parent of kids at Barron Park, I wanted the community to be aware of a fantastic new inclusion program that Barron, along with other elementary schools in Palo Alto, have started this year. It's an inclusion program where students in traditional special education are being included in regular classes up to 50% of the time. The program just started this year and has been an amazing step towards addressing some of the traditional issues with special education kids fitting in.

There has been a big emphasis on making sure there is a proper amount of aid time for each special ed child and a proper amount of explanation to both children and parents about how to talk about our differences and work together.

So far there have been a number of very inspiring stories coming out of the classrooms. I think this will be a positive step forward for our school as well as the entire Palo Alto school system.

All children benefit from being exposed to and working with children different from themselves.

Like this comment
Posted by Francoise
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 10, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Sara came and spoke in our daughter's class on Tuesday. She was touched by it and talked about her visit. That night, our daughter shared with me how some boys were making a "bad boy club" and bullying another very sweet boy who is different. The next day, as I was sharing this with her teacher, she noted that maybe it was connected with Sara coming to there classroom. Indeed, we can all learn or be reminded by inspirational people like Sara that we are all unique, can learn from our differences and should look out for each other. I was proud of our daughter telling me what she does to help that bullied boy.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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