SOUTH PLAINFIELD - Grant Elementary School’s Fourth Annual Disabilities Awareness Day took place on Thursday, April 18th.  The day long event was organized by Grant’s Special Education Department.  Students experienced firsthand what it is like to have disabilities with activities designed to simulate having autism, impairment of the senses and physical handicaps.  Videos and class discussions also contributed to the day that brought new understanding and compassion for those who are disabled.

“Disabilities Awareness Day started about four years ago when the Special Education Department asked the general education teachers if they would do a ten to fifteen minute mini lesson about a variety of disabilities,” said Michelle Kirchofer, Science and Special Education Teacher.  “It has evolved into a day that everybody wants to do the full forty minutes or eighty minutes of class. It’s really become a very impactful day for both staff and students alike.”  

The Grant School staff collaborates every year to create this special day, a day that has grown to become the highlight of the year.

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“I think it’s amazing to have this day,”  said Vanessa Proietto, Special Education Teacher, Language Learning Disabilities Program.  “It brings understanding, culture and depth to the world that we live in, into the world of inclusion.  We no longer shun our students or our community members with disabilities.  We include them a lot, so this is just a nice way to open up understanding and to build empathy within a young population.” 

Students and staff alike find the day a moving experience that brings the entire school together with enlightening experiences and a sense of unity.

“The teacher asked us how we felt during the autism activity and being an autistic kid,” said Alize Hsajid, fifth grader.  “I told her that I know I can walk away from it, so it was a fun activity for me, but for kids who actually have autism, it’s hard for them because they can’t walk away.  Now if I see someone with autism and they feel lonely, I can go help them and talk to them.”

“This day is so important to me,” said Sabrina Correa, sixth grade student with cerebral palsy.  “I know that there are so many people out there with developmental issues or physical disabilities.  Our acceptance of people with disabilities is far from perfect, but it so much better than it used to be.  I’m so grateful to have all these great people in my life that see me for me.”

Each of the twelve teachers in Grant’s Special Education Department were asked to pick a disability to focus on.  They created exercises, lessons and donated supplies to the general education teachers they collaborated with.  The school’s Speech Therapist, Occupational Therapist and Behavioralist were also a part of the preparation and day.

“We chose disabilities that we are passionate about, connected to in some way or have heartstrings attached to,” added Kirchofer.  “It just makes it more personal.   A day like this doesn’t happen without each of us doing our part, which is a very good feeling.  It’s a collaborative effort.”

Susan Salles, Teacher of Students with Multiple Disabilities, instructs a self-contained classroom of four students.  Her student, Michael Sogbo, designed a bookmark to commemorate this year’s event.  The bookmarks were given to every child in the school to color.

“After every lesson, the students got a colored ribbon for that awareness,” said Kirchofer.  “Then they tied it on the bookmark.  So at the end of the day, they had a rainbow to help them remember each of the lessons they experienced.”

“I think every school in the world should have a day like this, at least one day,” said Salles.  “It’s very emotional to see my students integrate with the other students and truly shine.”

Special Education/ELA Teacher Elyce Gonzalez customized tee shirts that captured the sentiment of the day.

“When we started this four years ago, we all wore a different color,” said Gonzalez.  “So I was English and I would be wearing blue for autism.  But I found this design and felt it was perfect. I think it’s great that the teachers come together and wear something in unity.”  

“The staff all have the shirts on and the kids see it,” said Salles.  “We’re all walking around looking at what other people are doing and people are helping each other.  It’s just such a wonderful day, a bonding day.  We need it, we work so hard all year and I feel like we this day is amazing!”

The Music Department used beat boxing, a form of vocal percussion, as communication. Students were given cards with various letter sounds on them that they could string together and sound out into a microphone.

“It’s such a special day,” said Shannon Maddolin, Grant School Music Teacher.  “We are working on beat boxing.  In the other classes, they’re learning about the different challenges that students face with their disabilities.  In here, we’re learning that music is the place where all the challenges disappear and they can communicate at the same level, peer to peer.”

Students from Salles’ class, many of whom have multiple disabilities, spent the class period side by side with music students of Maddolin’s class.  The experience was enlightening and emotional for all.

“It’s unreal because beat boxing is something my students can do with ease,” said Salles.  “They made letter sounds using cards and a computer-based program.  They were doing it with the general education kids, so they felt involved and part of a group. It was wonderful to see them interacting with the other kids and doing so well!” 

“Here, using music and sound, there are no disabilities,” said Maddolin.  “There are just peers communicating, creating, experimenting and making music.  Students collaborate by experimenting with sounds, whether they’re nonverbal, or they have a speech impediment, or they’re blind or they’re autistic.” 

“Music for my students is the most therapeutic thing in the world,” said Salles.  “They love music.  They love to hear it.  They love to sing.  They love to dance.  Music opens them up to a whole other world because it gives them the ability to communicate.”

“So what are we learning about music?” Maddolin asked the class.  “Music is for everyone, whether you can talk, whether you can see, and everybody, if they learn the skill, is fully capable of it.  It’s a form of communication. I’m going to ask you to get into groups of four or five and I’ve got some sounds on cards.” 

Many nonverbal students make sounds and the energy behind the noises they make is the same energy used to form words.  So those who have communication impairments and speech impediments have the ability to transfer those skills into the forming of simple words and phrases.  This allows nonverbal children the ability to experience a freedom beyond the confinement of their disabilities.  

“My students had no problem holding the microphone and beat boxing right into it in front of everyone,” added Salles.  “You can see some of the general education students very nervous about what they were doing and my kids grab the microphone and make sounds, no problem!”

While the music room vibrated with the hum of the student’s beat boxing creations, the English Language Arts students experienced what it is like to have autism.  After watching short videos about the different spectrums of autism, students participated in an activity simulating the effects of autism.

“So every activity that we’re doing is to simulate sensory overstimulation, which is a factor of autism," said Tina Ruhnke, Special Education Teacher.  "Today we are focusing on one of the five senses.  In one activity, we played loud static noise while the students were reading to simulate sensory overstimulation and students had to block out the noise in order to answer comprehension questions.”

“In the activity, the students broke up into groups and one child was autistic while three other students tried to distract them by tapping them and speaking loudly to them,” said Alyson Oller, ELA/Social Studies Teacher.  “The students learned a lot and enjoyed that activity a lot.  Now, I think they have a better picture of what it feels like to be autistic.”

Fifth Grade student Jocelyn Sosa has a sister with autism.

“This exercise really helped me understand my sister’s experience,” said Sosa.  “If there’s something really loud on the TV, she will go run towards it and turn it off immediately because she doesn’t like loud noises.”

The simulation activities in many classes included jumping rope with string instead of a traditional jump rope to replicate a child’s perception with sensory issues.  They also watched the story of Carly Fleischmann, who was diagnosed with autism and oral motor apraxia at an early age.  Fleischmann uses a communication device and her message was that those who are nonverbal do have a voice, but need to find a way to be heard.  

“My sister goes to Kennedy School and they gave her a little iPad to communicate with,” added Sosa.  “Once day, when she wanted popcorn, she touched the ‘I want’ button and she said the word ‘popcorn.’  My mom and I were so excited!”

“The activity touched Jocelyn a lot because she participated in the discussion and she gave us a lot of insight on what it’s like to live with someone with autism,” said Oller.  “So that was helpful for everyone.”

The impact the activities had on the children was profound as several students commented on what they had learned.

“I think it’s really important that we do this so we can all get to know how autistic people feel,” said Megan Mehl, fifth grader.  “I know at least three people who were autistic in my school last year and I never really knew how they felt in the classroom.  I think Disabilities Awareness Day is really fun because you get to be put in other people’s shoes and you get to understand more about them.”

“It’s pretty cool how we got to feel how autistic people felt,” said Jai Patel, fifth grader.  “It’s really important because they don’t have a cure yet, so it’s nice to feel what it’s like to be in their head and understand them.”

Physical Education classes focused on doing physical activities without the sense of sight while relying on friends for guidance as they ran laps and played volleyball in the gymnasium.

“Today, we are going to do exercises as if you do not have sight,” said Physical Education Teacher Maureen Barnett, to her class.  “We’re going to experience this going on a run.  I’m going to give you a really good explanation because safety is our first concern.  We are going to partner up and one of you will put on a blindfold.  Your partner will guide you through the run.  One person puts this blindfold on, the other one has a partner, you put your hand on their shoulder.  They are now responsible for your safety.”

“Gym was really fun,” said Jessica Grines, sixth grader. “It really did give me a good idea of what it felt like to be blind.  I do have a friend with cerebral palsy and he’s in my gym class.  He’s a very good person and a lot of people underestimate him.  They think get can’t do stuff, but he really can.”  

In Social Studies Classes, students were asked to communicate without words by playing charades.

“They all had different prompts and they had to act out or try to communicate with their group members what they wanted to say without using any words,” said Melissa Sabino, Sixth Grade Social Studies/Special Education Teacher.  “They got very frustrated with each other, but that was the point of it, so they could realize how hard it is to communicate without talking because I feel like they all take talking for granted.”

The day was filled with stories of disabled family members and friends with messages of hope and inspiration.  Special Education Teacher John Gonzalez chose cerebral palsy as the disability to highlight with classes because of his connection to a family member. 

“This day is really inspiring for me,” said Gonzalez. “The most profound connection for me was with my wife’s uncle, Uncle Claud, who has cerebral palsy.  For the entire time I had known him, I really didn’t know how to interact with him…Later on, my father-in-law told me the he had finished another book.  I asked if he likes to read and my father-in-law said, 'No, he wrote another book.'” 

Gonzalez said that days like Disabilities Awareness Day are incredible because they evoke discussion and bring awareness to what others are going through.

“Uncle Claud has lived a very full life,” added Gonzalez.  “He competed in the Special Olympics when he was younger.  Cerebral palsy has ravaged his body as he’s gotten older, but he’s a great guy and shame on me for treating him like a child, meanwhile he’s brighter than I am.  The awareness that a day like today promotes is incredible.” 

The general education Math Department spent the day with students from the self contained classrooms, exploring visual impairments and other sensory limitations.

“My kids are doing well,” said Proietto, who instructs a self-contained class. “We’ve grown a lot and you really can’t tell who’s a self contained kid and who is not in the classroom right now.  That’s the most amazing part.  That’s my goal.  I believe in inclusion.  I believe we should include and continue to find ways to include.”  

“We want the students to know that we can understand each other’s differences, accept them and be supportive of one another,” said Susan Eichert, Sixth Grade Math Teacher.  “We want them to know that it’s okay to be different, it’s okay to be special, it’s okay to just be themselves.”  

Students were asked to communicate without words, to close their eyes to draw a picture and to participate in other actitives.  

“My students came in together with the general education students to play math games and get out of that self-contained world,” added Proietto.   “I think South Plainfield, as a district, is looking at more programming, more abilities to include thoroughly.  So that builds more understanding and empathy too.”

Sixth Grade Science Classes focused on acceptance, highlighting the importance of understanding the differences of others and including them.  Children had to hold a card with a color to their forehead.  Others could see the card, but the cardholders could not.  The class was asked to get into groups.  The reds, oranges, blues and greens found one another, but only one child held the purple card.  The experiment was to see if the child with the one purple card would be accepted into a group.  

“I saw a lot of help in this group,” said Kirchofer to her class after the activity.  “I saw a lot of people taking someone by the hand and putting them together.  And that’s the message for today, it’s that we want to be kind.  We want to be inclusive and we want to make sure that everyone can be a part of every group.  One act of kindness can make a difference.”

The classes were kind and many accepted the child into their group.  During class, Sabrina Correa, a sixth grade student with cerebral palsy, had the opportunity to express her feelings about having a lifelong disability.  Expressing herself with an eloquence far beyond her years, Correa rendered an insightful and rare look into her life, allowing her classmates to hear firsthand what is it like to be disabled from her perspective.

“When I was younger, I didn’t understand the full scope of cerebral palsy and how it would affect my everyday life,” said Correa.  “I took gymnastics for a really long time.  It was just a bunch of girls who enjoyed gymnastics and nobody cared that I was different, but as we got older, people started to understand that I needed more help.  I started feeling when I walked into that gym, a sense of being showered with this feeling of inferiority.  I never felt equal to those girls and it hurt a lot.”

Correa explained that in her younger years, she struggled with understanding her differences and limitations, adding that when someone has a disability, they have to learn self acceptance, which took her a long time to understand.

“I had nothing against those girls,” added Correa.  “I was mad more at myself than I was at them.  I didn’t understand that cerebral palsy wasn’t something that you just got over overnight.  I only recently told my parents how I had felt about this because I felt like if I talked more about it, I thought that it would look weak to need so much help.”  

Correa wears a necklace with the word “Faith” given to her by her longtime aide, Gail Bori, who assists her with mobility throughout her day.  Correa says the necklace reminds her everyday to have faith. 

“If you had walked up to me when I was little and told me that I would be able to be a dancer and do all the things I do today, I would never have believed you because I didn’t have that belief in myself that I do now,” said Correa. “I didn’t understand that I could overpower this.  I thought it was going to be this cloud over my whole life, that I wasn’t going to be able to escape and look at me now!” 

Correa expressed her gratitude and appreciation for her family and friends, whom she attributes much of strength to.

“I’m so proud of my family for supporting me and I want them to know that I thank them for supporting me,” added Correa.  “To be able to feel acceptance that I didn’t feel before I met everyone here at Grant and before I met the kids at my elementary school is amazing.  I’ll never be normal to society’s standards, but I’m normal in my own way and because I have so many wonderful people that support me.”

The day concluded with Grant students and staff feeling united, with the ability to look beyond disabilities and embrace others with love and acceptance.

“I love this day,” said Michelle Rafalowski, Fifth Grade Language Arts and Social Studies Teacher.  “It’s one of my favorite days of the year.  The teachers work really hard to put it together for us and we’re very appreciative.”

“This day is so awesome for my students because they get to experience different activities that may affect them and they can also get involved with the other kids," said Salles.  "They can learn new skills and have different experiences, but they can also feel confident about what they’re doing,”

“It was really a great day of educational and hands-on learning with activities that got the message across, so it was very special,” said Principal Patrick Sarullo.  “It’s the teachers who put this together, so I want to thank the teachers, our Special Education Department, especially Ms. Kirchofer, and the students who did a fabulous job.  I’m very proud of the students and staff of Grant School.”

“Disabilities Awareness Day is effective and evokes a lot of emotion,” said Kirchofer.  “Sometimes there are tears, sometimes there’s frustration, but the best part is that it creates conversation and hopefully, effects change for the better.  I love today.  It’s my favorite day of the year!”