Jessie’s First Grade Class Learns About Disabilities

The back story: My daughter Jessie, had spinal muscular atrophy [SMA]. She was the first handicapped child to be mainstreamed in our local public school. In the 1970s, federal laws such as The Rehabilitation Act, and Public Law 94-142 were in their infancy.

Educational laws were changing

These laws were responsible for allowing any handicapped child to be mainstreamed in their neighborhood schools. They had to have their educational needs met in the least restrictive environment. This was a new law for everyone who worked in the school building. Teachers and paraprofessionals were mandated to follow the new Federal laws. All others were given an in-service on how these new educational mandates affected their jobs.

How I became involved

I was appointed by the school board to be the parent representative on the Committee on the Handicapped [COH]. The COH was made up of teachers, psychologists, parents, special educators, and therapists. The COH presided over writing goals that the staff would need to implement for students who were disabled. Consequently, the COH was responsible for making sure that the school complied with these laws.

In kindergarten, some of the children made fun of and cruelly teased my daughter because she was disabled. I met with the chairman of the COH as well as the principal of the school. I inquired as to how Jessie's classmates could be desensitized when interacting with a disabled child in their class.

Educating her class

The state of New York had a touring ensemble of special educators, who performed skits with puppets to foster understanding. The principal agreed and arranged a visit to her school. They presented a play with Muppet-type characters. These puppets were shown to have special needs. They talked about how their experiences dealing with having an impairment. Through this play, they focused on how children could interact and react to those who had disabilities. Some of the Muppet-like characters were in a wheelchair, or were speech, visually and/or hearing impaired, etc. It was performed at each grade’s assembly. It was positively received by most of the students.

What do you wish others knew about SMA?

Disability awareness programs

In addition, these special education teachers went into each class to have the students personally experience how it felt to have special needs. Indirectly, they taught the children the meaning of compassion and empathy. For example, to simulate a visually challenged child, they put glasses on a student and covered the lenses with Vaseline. Then, they had the classmate read what was written by the teacher wrote on the board. The student could not read what was written. Then this pupil experienced the wrath of the other students giggling. He became upset and embarrassed by the experience.

Furthermore, they placed a student in a wheelchair so that they could share what it was like to move through the school. Other demonstrations included putting rubberbands on some of a girl's fingers thereby impeding finger mobility. She was then asked to write her name. She was unable to do it. Another student was told to take off his sneakers. Then, they put peas in his shoes. Subsequently, he was told to walk quickly in the hall as if he was going to the bathroom. The student had a difficult time trying to walk this way.

Also, they demonstrated what it would be like if you could not take big steps (because their shoelaces were tied together). This student also experienced difficulty with balance. The scenario was repeated several more times, to simulate other disabling conditions.

Subsequently, another activity involved the teacher giving verbal directions for completing a homework assignment. However, cotton was placed in the student’s ears, thereby impeding her ability to understand the directions.

Finally in another scene, the troupe put marshmallows in a child’s mouth, and he was asked to say the rhyme Humpty Dumpty. His classmates could not understand him because he became quite unintelligible. By the end of the demonstration, the students were not giggling anymore.

Explaining the need for compassion

The teachers explained what it was like to have a disability. They discussed how the students could interact differently with compassion. They should try to be kind and help those children who were experiencing difficulty.

Conclusion: attitudes were changing

As a result, through experiencing their simulated handicaps, many of the able-bodied students changed their attitudes and were more empathetic to those children who had special needs.

Jessica then was accepted by her peers as just another classmate who happened to be in a wheelchair. She was just considered another girl in the class. She made friends with her classmates. This desensitizing activity was successful!

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