READING - On most days fourth grade students in Reading Elementary Schools study math, science, and other typical school subjects. But for the past two months, they’ve been studying a new subject – disability awareness.
Participants in EMARC’s Life Choices program recently spoke to Reading Elementary School students about developmental disabilities as part of Reading’s Understanding Disabilities program. The Understanding Disabilities program is designed to sensitize students to the issues and challenges faced by people with a disability and promote inclusion for people of all abilities.
The speakers taught students about EMARC and the Life Choices program, how the Life Choices program teaches people with developmental disabilities to become independent members of their communities, and how people with developmental disabilities are similar in many ways to people without a disability.
“We talk to people about what we do at EMARC, about our special abilities, so they get to know the importance of people with a disability and they get to know what it’s like,” said Sean Leary, a Life Choices participant and speaker in the Understanding Disabilities program.
Added Matt Freedman, another speaker in the program, “Not a lot of people know what it’s like. We like teaching people about who we are and what we can do.”
Each speaker plans his speech after meeting with the other speakers in the group and discussing what they think is the most important information to pass along to the students. Greg Trakimas wanted to show students that people with a developmental disability have hobbies just like people without a disability. He shared his photos and his interest in photography with the group.
Ruth Clogston, lead teacher for the Understanding Disabilities program, says it’s stories like Trakimas’s that make the program’s lessons hit home for students.
“When these speakers talk to the students, the students find out they’re just like anyone else,” said Clogston. “They find out they have many things in common. It’s a memorable experience.”
At the end of the session, the speakers take questions and hand out bookmarks they created with the lessons they think are the most important from the day. The bookmarks encourage students to avoid bullying, to make new friends and to continue to educate themselves about people with different abilities.
Clogston says it’s one of the few pieces of homework the students don’t have trouble taking home.
“The students love it and they really get so much out of the lesson,” she said. “I think it’s made all of our students kinder, gentler people.”
Now in its 28th year in Reading, Understanding Disabilities, Inc. is a local non-profit who organizes workshops and speaker sessions about disability awareness in Reading’s five elementary schools each year. The program has five units each focusing on visual, auditory, physical, and developmental disabilities. During each unit, students study each type of disability, complete classwork and homework, and listen to speakers with a visual, auditory, physical, or developmental disability.