“Do you know what a disability is?”
I asked this question to students in third- through fifth-grade classes. Some students gave an answer, but most struggled to form thoughts on the topic. I decided to raise our students’ awareness of their classmates with disabilities.
At South Walker (Louisiana) Elementary, I treat students in our significant disabilities classroom, several resource classes and two special-needs pre-K classes. I wanted our typical students to better understand their special education classmates, so I hosted an event called “Understanding Uniqueness.”
The event helps educate students and staff about different disabilities. I also hoped the event would foster a more caring and nurturing environment among all students in our large school.
More than 350 upper elementary students participated in Understanding Uniqueness. I set up a series of events in the school cafeteria and classes rotated through during the afternoon. Each of the four activity stations focused on a different disability and gave typical students a way to experience some of the challenges experienced by their classmates.
The stations included physical impairment, autism/communication, visual impairment and learning disability. (We felt the time constraints made it too challenging to thoroughly and accurately cover hearing loss issues as part of this event, but we hope to do so for a future program.) At the physical impairment station, students wore thick gloves and attempted to untie their shoes, pick up pennies, open a jar and put buttons in a container. These activities represent how someone with a physical disability might feel when asked to participate in a task involving gross-motor schools.
Our autism/communication center showed challenges associated with a speech and/or a sensory disorder. At this center, students picked a card from a container and then communicated what was written on the card using only a picture board, while remaining nonverbal. For the visual impairment station, students wore glasses they couldn’t see through and tried to draw a picture. They also felt braille and attempted to write their name using braille.
Lastly, the learning disability station symbolized what a student with dyslexia might experience. Students at this station tried to read a passage of words with letters out of order or written backward.
Collaboration was key to the event’s success. The significant disabilities teacher, paraprofessionals, school board members, ESL teacher, adapted PE service providers and two local nurses all helped students through the activity stations. Other school faculty and administrators also supported our efforts.
Following the “Understanding Uniqueness” program, students received a handout explaining a disability, the different types of impairments, and tips to prevent bullying. Students took the handout home to share with parents and siblings.
After completing the program, our third- through fifth-graders demonstrated an increased understanding of a wide range of disabilities. Many general education students now make a point to say hello to our significant disability students in the hallway or to hold the door open for our students in wheelchairs. We see the success of the “Understanding Uniqueness” program in the typical students’ actions, the praise received from parents at our school, and even from teachers and faculty members commenting on the changes they see.
Lauren Gongre Miley, ClinScD, CCC-SLP, works at South Walker Elementary in Walker, Louisiana. Lauren.Miley@lpsb.org