SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – South Plainfield’s Grant School paid tribute to student differences and celebrated abilities at the 2nd Annual Disabilities Awareness Day. Throughout the school day April 7, fifth and sixth graders had the opportunity to learn about, recognize, and understand the different types of learners present in their school and community.
The school-wide initiative, held for the first time last year, was proposed by special education teacher Michelle Kirchofer and organized by Grant’s 11-member special education teaching team. Teachers within each subject area selected a disability and created lessons and activities that were incorporated into the curriculum on Disabilities Awareness Day.
“Disabilities Awareness Day is really about everyone’s different abilities,” said Kirchofer. “We want our students to see that even if someone has a disability, they are able. They just may have to find a different way to do some things.”
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Every class the students attended on Disability Awareness Day focused on providing students with a glimpse into what it would be like to have that disability through short videos and lessons featuring interactive activities.
In English language arts the focus was on autism awareness. Special education teacher Jenna Alexander read articles about autism and students participated in conversational role-playing exercises to understand how those on the autism spectrum communicate.
In math, students learned about those who are communication and vision impaired. The fifth graders drew pictures with their eyes closed to understand what it is like for those who cannot see and, in sixth grade, students in Susan Salles’ classes learned about the Braille alphabet and how it is used; participated in activities in which they were only allowed to use senses other than sight to complete tasks; and discussed the challenges faced by having partial vision, or no vision at all.
“Some of the things we can do easily are things we may not realize that other people can’t,” Salles told her sixth grade math class. “The goal is to provide you with an idea of how it feels [with a disability] to go through everyday life and accomplish everyday tasks.”
In social studies classes, students focused on intellectual disabilities, taking part in exercises that tested their fine motor skills. For example, by placing a sock on their non-dominant hand, students learned how something as simple for them as taking 10 beans out of a cup and then putting them back can be extremely difficult for others.
On Disabilities Awareness Day, the science classes focused on learning disabilities and the hearing impaired with students seeing firsthand how difficult it is to read lips and got a glimpse into how those who cannot hear communicate through sign language.
“I love when I see that something has clicked with one of our students during an activity and that the student now has a greater understanding, realizing how fortunate they are or are moved when they go through an activity and now can appreciate someone else’s struggle,” said Kirchofer, who teaches sixth grade In Class Resource Science.
Awareness of those with physical disabilities was also featured in physical education/health classes. Exercises included helping someone who could not see make their way around a room as well as how challenging regular day-to-day tasks can be in a wheelchair, on crutches, or with just one hand.
Disabilities in the media and communications disorders were discussed in all of the specials - computers, Spanish, art and music. Students watched of slideshow featuring many famous people with disabilities and participated in various activities, including one that focused on dyslexia and asked them to read sentences written with backward words. Students were also asked to communicate basic needs, such as ‘I am hungry,’ without using words and only through nonverbal cues.
“Our goal today was to allow students the opportunity to encounter certain experiences that other people face each day [through] activities centered around learning more about specific disabilities, disorders, or other life-long challenge,” said Salles.
Additionally, as part of Disabilities Awareness Day, Grant special education teacher Kelly Szostek designed the bookmark that was given out to every student. Students received and decorated their bookmarks in homeroom and brought them to each class throughout the day. Following the disability awareness-themed lesson, each student received a different colored piece of yarn to loop through.
The goal, at the end of the day, was for each student to have a colorful bookmark to represent all they learned about on Disabilities Awareness Day. “The bookmark serves as a keepsake for the day’s events,” said Kirchofer. “I really like that we have the bookmark because it helps the students recall the events of the day. When you ask them about their bookmark they will use the colors of the attached yarn to help them to retell their experiences with the various activities.”
Events such as Disabilities Awareness Day, said Eli Freund, supervisor of special education for the South Plainfield School District, are a benefit to all students. “I think it is imperative for all students to understand how difficult it is for their fellow classmates and be aware what their deficits are,” said Freund. “This gives them a better perspective and hopefully they will be cognizant of their care and understanding of fellow students who have needs.”
Salles added that Disabilities Awareness Day is important because it helps students learn empathy and compassion for others that are different than them for any reason.
“We hope that the students gained a better understanding of the various disabilities, disorders, and/or challenges that other people could possibly be experiencing…but more importantly, how they can be kind, compassionate, and more helpful to others in their everyday lives,” she said.
“The students got a great deal out of today (as did we),” added Salles. “They learned to be more empathic and compassionate to others and also seemed to gain the understanding that you can’t always see if someone is struggling with something or has a disability of some form…that there could be a lot you don’t know about someone just by looking at them.”
And it seems Grant students agree. “You get to really feel like you were in their shoes, but I know you’ll never actually feel exactly the way someone with a disability feels, but this helps us to have an understanding,” said sixth grader Angelina Resal.
Emma Ballinger, also sixth grade, added, “It doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not you can do whatever you want if you try.”
The 2nd Annual Disabilities Awareness Day at Grant School was organized by Kirchofer with assistance from special education teachers Kaitlyn Brown (science); Szostek and Chelsea Hunt (ELA); Kathy Boyle and Jenna Alexander (social studies); Salles, Laura Berman, Susan Butrico, and Michelle Hollander (math); Elyce Gonzalez (specials); and Tracy Lawrence (health/physical education) with support from all teachers and staff.
“This truly was a collaborative effort and a school-wide initiative that was embraced by everyone on our staff. It would never happen without everyone’s support,” said Kirchofer, adding that she realizes events such as Disabilities Awareness Day make a difference when students she doesn't even have in her classes make an effort to reach out.
“At the end of the day, Ashlie De la Riva Cruz, [who] I don’t even have as a student, stopped by my classroom to say ‘Mrs. Kirchofer, I just wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for having a day like today. I want to teach people who have disabilities when I grow up so today meant the world to me,” Kirchofer said. “Needless to say, I was very moved by her sentiment.”
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