SPRING CHURCH — Usually, students in Jerry Moore’s classroom learn about geography and related subjects. On Thursday, however, they were in for lessons of a different sort — those relating to individuals with disabilities.
The Amazing Kids workshop was led by Bruce Adamson, an outreach coordinator from the Pittsburgh-based Children’s Institute.
[PHOTO: Apollo-Ridge Middle School sixth-graders Emma Rametta and Stanley Crownover tried writing their name on paper while they held it to their forehead to simulate a learning disability. The exercise Thursday was part of an Amazing Kids workshop at the school. (Tom Peel/Gazette photo)]
Sixth-grade students took part in the program Thursday; today, seventh-grade students are participating.
From a number of simulations that, at times, prompted nervous giggles to a series of recorded interviews that spurred lively discussion, students were given the chance to see what peers with disabilities experience.
Disabilities discussed ranged from physical ones, such as deafness and spina bifida, to what Adamson called “invisible” disabilities — learning disabilities and traumatic brain injury, for instance.
The Children’s Institute takes its sessions to schools across western Pennsylvania. Like Thursday’s program, today’s will cover not only disabilities, but touch on the Children’s Institute’s mission and bullying as well.
The institute helps children with special needs and their families by providing support including a hospital, school and social services.
Later this month, Indiana Area School District’s Dwight Eisenhower Elementary School will host one of the institute’s programs, Adamson said. The programs are brought to schools through funding from the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit program.
To demonstrate the experience of students with dysgraphia, a learning disability that impacts a person’s ability to write, Adamson had students place a strip of paper on their forehead and print their names on it. Based on a show of hands, most of the kids ended up writing their names backward.
While the results caused some laughter, Adamson’s point was a serious one.
“Your brain knows how to write your name, but it’s confused when you have to do it a different way,” he told students.
“If you had dysgraphia, this is how it would be every time you went to write.”
Another exercise — The Friembly Bog — demonstrated with a short story the challenges of dyslexia.
Adamson distributed a brief text that told the story of a dog named Jake. The text contained extra spaces, transposed letters and misspellings.
As students read the story — it began “Once ubom a time there was a friembl dogl. His name saw Jake …” — they talked under their breath about how difficult it was to do so.
Adamson prompted them to consider what it would be like for a student with dyslexia and how that would impact reading comprehension and ability to read aloud.
“I never realized disabilities were that bad,” sixth-grader Shelby Klingensmith said after her session let out.
The Children’s Institute has been bringing Amazing Kids and a sister program for elementary-aged students, Kids on the Block, to schools for about two decades, according to Adamson.
He said that over that time, he has seen a positive change in attitudes and an increased understanding of peers with disabilities.
“People are being enlightened,” he said. “It’s improving because of programs like this, things on television, plus accessibility and inclusion.”
Essentially, Adamson said, students who participate in the Amazing Kids workshop and others like it begin to see something interesting about peers with disabilities: they are just the same as them.
“When they see kids their age talking on camera, they can empathize,” Adamson said, referring to the series of short video interviews each class watched.
One shared the story of Nicole, who overcame the doubts of a basketball coach who wasn’t certain she could handle having a profoundly deaf player on her team.
Other interviews shared the stories of a teen left with a traumatic brain injury after an ATV accident and a high school student who lost use of her legs due to spina bifida.
Adamson paused the video at key points during the personal stories, like after a girl in a wheelchair was left alone by her friends at a high school dance.
“Try to imagine that it was you in the wheelchair,” he told students. “What do you think you would do?”
Discussion following the videos touched on topics such as how to help a deaf teammate and whether it is OK to ask someone why they are in a wheelchair.
Regarding the latter, many students indicated that it was not OK to ask about a disability. Adamson countered their assertions. If someone was in a wheelchair and had a cast on their leg, he asked, wouldn’t most people ask how they broke it?
It’s not that different, he said, for a person with a permanent disability.
“We like it when people take interest in us,” he told the class. “It’s all right to ask somebody about their disability, so long as you do it politely.”
After the bell rang for lunch, Alexandra Enciso, one of Moore’s sixth-graders, reflected on what she learned about peers with disabilities.
“I will try to be friends with them and help them if they are being bullied,” she said.
One of her classmates, Ryan Pasternak, said he would now do the same.
“I learned that not many people know about disabilities that well,” he said.
Another one of Moore’s students, Robert Harkleroad, said he learned that it’s all right to be curious about those with disabilities and ask them questions about themselves.
As for Moore, demonstrating through hands-on experience the challenges of disabilities offers lessons that never grow old.
“It’s nice to enlighten them as to people with disabilities,” he said. “I’ve seen kids with a lot of heart when it comes to disabilities. But it’s great to have their eyes opened again and again.”
[PHOTO: Bruce Adamson, outreach coordinator with the Children’s Institute, led the workshop Thursday at Apollo-Ridge Middle School. (Tom Peel/Gazette photo)]