The Able-Ness Toolkit

Grade Level: 
K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Career Opportunities
Service Learning
Youth Advisory Committee
Youth with differing abilities and skill levels can experience greater potential in general education, peer to peer relationships, and for a productive and engaging life after school years, if they have support and encouragement in place. This toolkit provides information, activities, and service-learning project ideas to help youth of different levels and abilities participate in life skill opportunities with philanthropy themes.

“Today, more than 1 million students are trapped in an education system that wasn’t built for them. That system wasn’t designed to accommodate their disabilities—the kinds of intellectual, cognitive, communicative, and physical conditions ... Many of the public schools they attend rest on the assumption that stereotypes are inevitable truths” (Wong, 2016).

Youth with all levels of abilities are more alike than different! With the support and encouragement to reach a greater potential in place, youth with differing abilities and skill levels can experience success in general education, peer to peer relationships, and a productive and engaging life after school. Isn’t that what we want for all?

Lesson Plans

  • Curated list of lesson plans related to the keyword Disability
  • Curated list of lesson plans related to the keyword Inclusion 
Related Toolkit
  • Disability Awareness - Teach lessons that build empathy for people with physical and mental differences. Lesson plans, project ideas, and community partners help youth understand abilities and strengths of people who are differently abled. 


  • Map Your Heartbreak - To discover what participants are passionate about.
  • Helping Students Find Their "Spark" - Start by asking yourself, and youth participants, these three simple questions: What gets you up in the morning eager to take on the day? What gives you joy and energy? What is that thing in your life that gives you hope and purpose?   

Using Person-First Language

  • A disability is something a person has; it is NOT who they are.
  • Name the person before the descriptor. It is better to say, “Jay has Down Syndrome” or “man with a visual impairment.” NOT “Jay’s Downs” or “Down Syndrome boy”
  • When discussing how to be more inclusive, say “youth of all abilities”
  • Generalizing people by their disability is disrespectful. Remember, each person with autism or Down Syndrome is their own person. No two people are the same. All people have their own abilities, their own strengths and weaknesses, and their own likes and dislikes. The same is true for any disability!
  • It is necessary to know how each individual communicates, their mobility, behaviors that may arise, their academic needs (can they read, write, count, etc. if that is important to the activity)

Create Opportunities for Working to Learn

By creating a job-like setting within the classroom, youths learn basic job skills they may otherwise never learn. By not only learning these job skills, but also practicing them in everyday transactions, they acquire basic job skills that can help them one day land a real position. Similarly, the students learn how to successfully follow directions, socialize with customers, and sell a product—the most basic job skills needed for any position. With continued efforts taken to teach job skills in classrooms, students with special needs will have a better chance of getting a job in the future.

  1. Create a mobile coffee station/school store/ice cream stand (see handout below)
  2. Host a themed dance (see handout below)

Help all participants, especially those with different abilities, understand and say “okay, here are my abilities, here are my limitations—and I’m going to work competitively despite those limitations.”

Service-Learning Project Ideas

Service-learning provides an opportunity for all youth to feel capable of making a difference. The following ideas are appropriate for all abilities. Give participants ownership and responsibility, and they will rise to the challenge. Provide guided support and mentoring, as appropriate.

  • Organize and distribute get well cards for members of the community battling cancer
  • Collect, assemble and distribute care packages for first responders in the area
  • Collect, assemble and distribute Holiday baskets to residents in need
  • Collect, organize, and package paper products and personal care products for a local agency (I.e., women’s shelter, homeless shelter, food pantry) working with people in need
  • Host a water station or cheering group at a 5K+ race!
  • Organize and participate in a Buddy Walk

View our Service-Learning guide to learn about the process of SL—investigating needs, planning a project, taking action, and demonstrating and reflecting on their impact— and also how SL develops critical-thinking skills.

Vulnerability is Key

Giving youth agency in the service-learning process can be scary. An educator must be comfortable with being vulnerable. Know that your youth, regardless of their abilities or skill level, will need the freedom and support to try, fail, and try again. Through failures come the opportunity to discuss issues that occurred and come to a shared understanding of how to do things differently in the future. This process can be frustrating for all involved, but know that for youth, especially those with different able-ness, this process is life changing.

“Embrace the problems,” said Ms. Renne Wyman, MiCL Teacher from Sparta High School in Sparta, Michigan. “For my students I am all about life lessons, and sometimes those lessons are hard. But with great difficulty comes improvement and teaching in this way is unlimitedly powerful.” Direct from Wyman, who is also the coordinator of the Best Prom Ever: “if there’s something you’re doing over and over for a lesson or project, you can teach your students to help in the process and they’ll learn new skills and gain new experiences as a result!”

Planning a Service-Learning Project

This resource provides guidance and questions for each step of the process.



This chart helps youth prepare for who does what in the service-learning process.


Potential Community Partners

Other Resources for Investigation and Communication

  • Makerspaces: Young people with special needs and neurological differences can benefit from the hands-on process, experimental nature, and visible results of maker education. Edutopia 
  • Transition Planning: Preparing youth with disabilities for the workforce requires a comprehensive transdisciplinary vocational assessment and an emphasis on postschool planning. 
  • Special Education Work to Learn: Numerous high schools are starting to incorporate job skills training into the special education curriculum by teaching students how to create and sell products to students and faculty at school. By creating a job-like setting within the classroom, students learn basic job skills they may otherwise never learn. 
  • Escaping the Disability Trap: What’s the best way to prepare special-needs individuals for the workforce? The Atlantic 
  • How Mistakes Help Students Learn: Posing questions helps them think through a problem, bridging the gap between what they know and what they don’t. Edutopia 

Links & Attachments