Students learn lessons about the challenges people with disabilities face through hands-on curriculum

Sarah Vogel recently taught Westridge Elementary third- and four-graders lessons in empathy, patience and inclusion. With the help of parent volunteers, the school psychologist presented the district's Welcome to My World hands-on curriculum, and students came away with an appreciation for what people with physical and other disabilities face each day.

The Welcome to My World program has been part of the curriculum for elementary schools in the Lake Oswego School District for nearly 20 years. Vogel and parents involved in Westridge's experience say the lessons warrant repeating year after year and expanding to the junior high level.

Though many students thought it would be fun to learn to manipulate a wheelchair, they found it is harder than it looks. They attempted getting into a bathroom and shooting baskets in the gym while sitting in a wheelchair.

'The door is heavy,' said Jacob Jones. 'You have to stretch really far to push it open.'

Another student commented that it was hard to shoot baskets without using your legs. All agreed that people using wheelchairs would need to develop strong arms and hands.

Students experienced what it would be like to lack fine motor skills. With fingers taped together, they were asked to stack pennies, write and use scissors. They found it took a great deal more concentration and a lot more time to complete what were ordinarily simple tasks for them.

'I don't use my pinkies very much,' said Quinn Brink as he stacked pennies using his pinkie fingers. 'This is pretty hard to do.'

'It feels very different,' said Matt McCormish. 'I have to be much more careful, and it is hard to concentrate.' He said he felt embarrassed that he couldn't easily complete the tasks.

A surprise lesson was learned when a pencil rolled off the table where students were experiencing vision impairments. Finding the pencil was difficult and frustrating. Students commented that it would be very important for those with vision impairments to keep things organized and in a regular place.

A fourth station was set up to give students an appreciation for what those with dyslexia experience. Dyslexia, sometimes called the invisible disability, is a complex language problem and has to do with how the brain works, rather than being a vision problem. It is the most common: 80 percent of students with learning disabilities have dyslexia.

To illustrate dyslexia, students were asked to follow directions that were written backwards on a page. Concentration was key as they tried to translate the letters into words and sentences that made sense.

After the students had gone to the four stations, Vogel gathered them together to share their experiences. She encouraged them to be patient with those with disabilities and extend to them the same courtesies they would ordinarily to friends.

'Having a disability doesn't mean you are not smart,' Vogel said to the students. 'It just may take them longer to do things. Having a disability may change you on the outside, but kids with disabilities are the same as you on the inside. Would they like to be invited to a birthday party or sleepover? You bet.'

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