By Jan Swoope
Lining up the zipper was complicated. Fastening the buttons was even tougher, especially while wearing thick work gloves. But that's how 8-year-old Kylie Vincent and her classmates at New Hope Elementary School in Columbus got a glimpse of challenges people with Down syndrome face each day. The hands-on exercise was part of In My Shoes, a Junior Auxiliary of Columbus service project for more than a decade. The disability awareness program helps children better understand classmates, friends and relatives who may seem different.
"It's hard!" said Kylie, finally successful with the zipper on the fabric-covered activity board. Other youngsters wearing gloves attempted to lace up and tie shoestrings. Some looked at images on flash cards -- a bird, car or dog -- and with a depressor on the tongue, tried to convey the word to the rest of the group. Their frustrations illustrated struggles people with special needs can experience.
Each Tuesday in February, JA members educated New Hope's second-graders about four disabilities -- Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and vision or hearing impairment. In October, they will take the project to Stokes-Beard Elementary School. With more special needs children participating in general education classrooms, awareness, tolerance and acceptance are the project's main goals.
A personal cause
JA member Robyn Buxton is the current chair of In My Shoes. She is also the Response to Intervention coordinator at New Hope Elementary School.
"Every year at JA project evaluation we talk about passing the project on to another organization or to the schools and we would start a new project," said Buxton. "But this is too close to the heart for many of our members; they're dedicated to it."
For a few JA members, In My Shoes is a deeply personal cause. Angie McCoy's 9-year-old son has mild cerebral palsy. She serves on the In My Shoes team. To her, it's important to teach children that people with disabilities are not contagious, to reduce the "fear of the unknown" youngsters may harbor about conditions or behaviors they haven't encountered before.
Children with special needs want to be treated as much like other kids as possible, McCoy emphasized. "It might take them longer to do some of the things we take for granted, like putting on their own clothes, and they may have trouble with fine motor skills -- but they want friends just like everybody else. They want to be included."
Elementary schools are often at the forefront in shaping understanding and reaction to individuals with special needs. It's in the hallways and classrooms that children often first meet others who have physical limitations or feel, hear and process information differently.
The number of students with disabilities is steadily growing in our schools, said New Hope Elementary Principal Tammy Aldridge. How their classmates perceive and interact with them can be critical to success.
"One of my catch phrases I talk about to students and teachers is 'perception is reality,'" said Aldridge. "If we can't change somebody's perception then we can't change reality for someone who is going through something. I've been real pleased with this JA program; I thank them for addressing this. They can show what it can be like, and the perception can change for these children.
In My Shoes employs a variety of targeted teaching tools with second-graders. Each lesson begins with a book read aloud about a child with a specific condition. A brief Q&A and hands-on activities follow.
"In the book, there was a girl and a boy who didn't want to be the other little boy's friend because he acted different," said Kylie, about the story her class was read about Down syndrome. She learned something about all four disabilities during JA's February visits.
In sessions about autism students experience how classmates with autism might process stimuli. The children try to complete a worksheet that is in code, holding a marker covered with the rough "hook" side of velcro.
"We play loud noises, school noises, while they're working," explained Buxton. "Some of these kids know children with autism, and they're very responsive to that."
To help better understand cerebral palsy, students put on harnesses that restrict movement before attempting to pull on a pair of shorts, or try to color while wearing a wrap around their dominant fingers.
To encourage empathy for people with vision impairment, the children don darkened glasses, feel the pages of Braille books and learn to write their name in Braille.
The common denominator stressed in every session is how alike, not how different, we all are.
"It helps the children realize that those with a disability are just like them on the inside," said New Hope second-grade teacher Karen Bowers. "It allows them to walk, for a few minutes, in their shoes, opening discussions and giving them the chance to ask questions. In My Shoes is an awesome program that we look forward to every year."
Most students, like Kylie, get it.
"We learned there might be people in wheelchairs and don't know how to walk. I can push them and help them if they need it," the 8-year-old said. "Or some people might have trouble talking, or other problems. They might be lonely and need friends. ... We should treat them like friends."
Editor's note: Learn more about this and other JA service projects at jacolumbus.org.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.