Laura Kneedler’s dad introduced her to the disability community. He worked in adult group homes. She’d hang out with him at work, and sometimes clients would come over for dinner.
“I learned sign language because I wanted to interact with the people he was interacting with,” says Kneedler. Those lessons learned with her dad stuck with Kneedler. She eventually created a career that mixed creating inclusive environments, early childhood learning and supporting families within the special needs community.
As the vice president of Northwest Center Kids, Kneedler leads nearly 100 teachers, therapists and support staff in serving more than 700 children in King County. Through programs of early intervention therapy and two inclusive early learning preschools, Kneedler’s team provides a comprehensive approach to meet the needs of children with special needs in the classroom, community and home setting.
Kneedler leads by listening, says Emily Miller, Northwest Center’s chief people officer. “You leave conversations [with Kneedler] feeling heard and respected. She’s created a culture of respect and dignity.”
Working in inclusive classrooms has taught Kneedler that everyone has special needs, not just students with a diagnosis or delays. “We’re constantly adjusting environments to meet individual needs,” she says. “[To be successful,] we all need accommodations sometimes.”
What’s the most misunderstood part of your job?
I don’t think people realize how far of a reach the disability community has: It affects so many families in one way or another. If my work has taught me anything, it’s that we have so much to learn from this community.
People fight a little bit harder for the things we take for granted, and many barriers still exist for these children and families.
Who inspires you?
It sounds cliché, but I really mean it: the families and kids I work with every day. I see them overcome big adversities and they have a wonderful outlook on life. It reminds me to be grateful and open and to not take for granted the opportunities that I have.
What’s one small action our readers can take in their own lives to make positive change happen?
Speak to someone who’s different than you and try to understand their point of view or what their life is like. Families with typically developing kids often join NWC because [the school is] close by their house.
Later, they tell us that being in an inclusive environment has made a huge impact not only on their children, but also on them.
What’s one takeaway you’d like families to understand about your line of work or area of expertise?
The disability community is frequently left out of conversations about diversity and yet is the largest minority group in the United States. We have to work harder as a society to include everyone in the conversation because so many amazing people go unnoticed.