SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – Grant School held its 3rd Annual Disabilities Awareness Day on March 29 with fifth and sixth graders taking part in a school-wide initiative designed to teach about the different types of learners in their school and community.

Throughout the day, teachers within each subject area discussed specific disabilities and incorporated lessons and interactive activities into the curriculum. The goal, said organizer Michelle Kirchofer, a sixth grade In Class Resource Science teacher at Grant, is to promote acceptance and understanding.

“As teachers, we know that all of our students are different – and that all children are special.  But some of our students are special in ways that present them along with their families, friends, and teachers with more difficult challenges,” said Kirchofer. “Disabilities Awareness Day is really about everyone’s different abilities, We want our students to see that even if someone has a disability, they are not limited.  They just may need to find a different way to do some things.”

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"The goal of the day is for everyone to get an idea about what it is like to have a specific disability,”  sixth grade science teacher Emilie Bishara told her class.

In English language arts the focus was on autism awareness and students participated in conversational role-playing exercises to understand how those on the autism spectrum communicate and how sounds and other distractions can affect one’s ability to concentrate.

In all math classes, students learned about those who are vision impaired and experienced firsthand what is like for those students with different visual issues through lessons that required use of senses other than sight. Students also learned about the Braille alphabet and discussed the challenges faced by those who have partial vision, or no vision at all.

“Initiatives like this bring us all together and that we can really work together to bring awareness of people with all different abilities,” said fifth grade math teacher Kaitlyn Brown.

In science classes, hearing impairments were discussed with students Additionally, in Bishara’s and Kirchofer’s classes, students experienced the ‘frustrations’ and ‘pressures’ that can come with hearing impairments when they were quizzed on a video that was difficult to hear due to low volume and the addition of background noise.  They also participated in a lip reading exercise as well as learned to sign the chorus to the Justin Timberlake song ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling.’

In Grant’s social studies classes, the focus was on intellectual disabilities. Students took part in exercises that tested their fine motor skills and their ability to blindly follow verbal directions.  They also learned how the classroom environment may be different and/or more difficult for peers with intellectual disabilities.

Awareness of those with physical disabilities was also featured in physical education/health classes and, in chorus classes, the focus was on disabilities in the media. Additionally, Grant’s Spanish, art and music classes all focused on communications disorders with the primary lesson centered around disabilities that can keep a person from being able to speak or makes their speech understood.

Students learned how communication disorders can be caused by many different disabilities or injuries and how some people with difficulty speaking may use sign language, gestures, or small pictures they carry with them.  In one of the activities students were presented one at a time with a sentence such as ‘I am allergic to strawberries’ and had to convey this message to classmates without speaking, experiencing first-hand how challenging this may be.

This year, student teacher Meredith Timko, who is working with Grant speech therapist Tracy Lawrence, planned a lesson with the objective of being to educate a small class of students on how disabilities may affect daily living activities and also shared a few video clips with the students of famous artists who paint by holding a paintbrush in their mouths, with their feet, or who are only able to paint while lying on their side.  The students were then given the opportunity to try to paint using one of these methods. 

“Even though this is only an activity for us, it makes me realize that others who have this type of actual disability have to live every day like this,” said sixth grader Saleena Hanif after trying to paint with the paint brush in her mouth.

Fellow sixth grader Christian Martinez added, “I learned that just because you have a disability doesn't mean you can’t do the things you love.”

During homeroom, students were given a ‘Disabilities Awareness’ bookmark to decorate and, following each disability awareness-themed lesson, received a different colored piece of yarn to loop through. The goal, at the end of the day, said Kirchofer, was for each student to have a keepsake that would ultimately help them recall their experiences throughout their day.

Events such as Disabilities Awareness Day, said Eli Freund, supervisor of special education for the South Plainfield School District, are beneficial to both students and teachers.

“Sometimes, our general education students don’t fully comprehend what it is like for our students with a disability and how it affects them on a daily basis. Programs like this, where they can learn about and experience what their peers feel, really gives everyone equal footing,” said Freund, adding, “The same goes for teachers who may not otherwise know what some students are experiencing. This is a great experience for our teachers as much as it is for our students.”

Brooke Ridley, 6th grade student in one of the science classes said, “At the end of the day, I found the activities to be very inspirational.  I also learned that I want to help others whenever I can.”

“It’s very important for us to learn about other people and disabilities they may have – so that we can be understanding and honestly be thankful for what we have,” said 6th grade student Keirra Farrel.

“These types of activities help us to understand how people with disabilities feel all the time.  Reminds us appreciate the things we take for granted,” added sixth grader Sahasra Nagireddy

“The activities helped us to understand how people with disabilities have to adapt and find new ways to do things,” said Grant sixth grader Tim Prisk.

The 3nd Annual Disabilities Awareness Day at Grant School was organized by Kirchofer with assistance from special education teachers Susan Salles and Michelle Hollander (math); Kirchofer and Kaitlyn Brown (science); Chelsea Hunt, Kelly Szostek, Therese Zambrano, Melissa Sabino, Tina Rhunke (ELA); Kathy Boyle and Jenna Alexander (social studies);  John Gonzalez and Vanessa Prioetto (specials); and Tracy Lawrence and Meredith Timko (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. This is a very big undertaking and it would never happen without everyone’s support.  We have an awesome Special Education Team at Grant School, always ready and willing to go above and beyond” 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 show up at her classroom door at the end of the day to say thank you for organizing this day.

“That is why we do what we do,” Kirchofer said.

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