When her son was old enough to start kindergarten at Kenrose Elementary School, Jen Vogus was concerned about a disability he had developed not long after birth.
Aiden Vogus, now 19, was born a healthy baby boy but began to show signs of physical and intellectual disabilities due to a novel chromosomal deletion (STXBP1). Most telling was his inability to communicate verbally. He had a lot of interests, but had no way to share those with his teachers or classmates, and in turn couldn’t tell his parents about his day at school.
So Vogus came up with the idea to share her son’s stories through photographs. She had scores of pictures of Aiden doing what most kids his age were doing, and teachers made sure plenty of photos from his day at school were being shared at home.
“The idea just came to me,” Vogus says. “I told myself I’m going to take pictures of Aiden horseback riding, swimming, riding roller coasters, and I sent them to school with him. That really opened up his world. It allowed him to communicate through the day and allowed other teachers to see what he’s capable of doing, and it also allowed his peers to see that he’s more like them than he is different.”
Vogus later reasoned that if photography helped open up her son’s world, it could do the same for other students with disabilities. Through her experience as a former high school science teacher, a newfound interest in photography and a good bit of research, Vogus started the program known as AbleVoices in January 2018.
“If you asked me 10 years ago if I would be a photographer or founder of a nonprofit organization, never in a million years would I have guessed,” Vogus says. “But now it’s really neat to me to see how all of my interests have come together and have culminated in AbleVoices, which is what I absolutely love. It really has combined all my passions into one.”
AbleVoices provides photography programs for individuals with disabilities as a means for self-expression, empowerment and advocacy. The ultimate goal of a project is to provide the tools and training for individuals to create pictures that communicate their interests, strengths and goals for the future as well as foster the inclusion of individuals with disabilities in their communities.
Vogus works with special education programs in the high schools within the Williamson County Schools district, beginning with Centennial High in the spring 2018 semester. She has also taken AbleVoices to Franklin, Ravenwood and Page high schools, and is at Brentwood High for the 2021 fall semester and will be at Summit High in spring 2022.
Vogus has also started a photography club for those students who have received a special-education diploma and are enrolled in a transitional program at their respective high school.
Regardless of whether they’re high school or transitional, Vogus’ students — and their parents — are appreciative of what she has done to elevate their self-confidence and to open up their creative side.
Take, for instance, Brock Bordeau, a transition student at Franklin High who has been a part of AbleVoices since the summer of 2020. He spoke of how Vogus and the program have made such a difference over the course of a year or so.
“I really feel like it’s opened up new horizons for me and helped me learn about myself in a better way,” Bordeau says. “It made me realize how passionate I was about photography.
“Ms. Jen is really special because she is always so kind to all the students with disabilities, and she really cares about each and everyone’s disability and tries to help them be as good a photographer as they can be.”
Her influence goes beyond the lens of a camera, however. The students’ photos are quite impressive, and they are regularly displayed in public buildings such as Franklin City Hall and the Williamson County Public Library, among others. But parents, particularly, are grateful for how Vogus has broadened the experience of their children.
“She is giving them skills they can carry through in life and they’re also building a network of friends,” says Susan Schrupp, mom of two children who have been a part of the program and is also an AbleVoices board member. “Jen helps them get engaged in the community.
“What it’s done for the group is to use photography for images, but also to learn about the area, their community, the resources that are around and are available to them. She’s resourceful on really absorbing what’s around us in the community and to open those doors for the students.”