"I tell the kids that spina bifida (spyna big-a-da) means 'split Spine,'" says 9-year-old Jackie. "And then I tell them all about my wheelchair. Once I let my best friend try to ride in it all by himself!"
Throughout the country there are nearly 4 million disabled children of school age and, like Jackie, a significant number have been, or will be, "mainstreamed" into regular public schools. New laws -- among them, Public Law 94-142 (The Education For All Handicapped Children Act) -- make it possible for many handicapped children to be educated in "the least restrictive environment" of the regular public school classroom. Yet in five years since enactment of the federal legislation, many parents and teachers have questioned, and at times opposed, the mainstreaming directive.
"Children can be so cruel," laments one fourth-grade teacher. "What will happen when a handicapped child comes into my room?"
Parents of handicapped children share similar concerns. "The law is necessary," says the father of a cerebral-palsied son, "but no law can mandate that handicapped children and then non-handicapped classmates will learn to become friends."
Children need to know about disabilities. The more they understand their classmate's handicap, the fewer barriers there are toward positive attitudes and eventual friendship. A child's disability is a functional part of his/her personality. Honest discussion about disabilities teaches children that handicaps are not to be feared or ignored, but can be accepted and appreciated as one of the many differences that make each of us unique.
"What's it like to be blind?"
"I'm never afraid of the dark like my little brother is," says Charlene, an 8-year-old who is blind. She explains why she wears glasses and, with her teacher, tells sighted classmates that some blind people use glasses to help them distinguish large shapes and some shades of colors, but that many cannot see enough to read.
Her classmates are fascinated to learn that blind people are able to "read" using tape recordings called "Talking Books," or by reading Braille. Since many children believe that a blind person feels the letters of the alphabet when reading in Braille, they are surprised to learn that Braille is a system of raised dots. "Kinda like a secret code," says Charlene.
"A "white cane," or "prescription cane" helps many blind people move about independently. Children enjoy using umbrellas and masks to simulate the use of a white cane, learning that the back-and-forth motion of the cane can alert them to obstacles ahead.
And children are amazed to discover that some blind children play soccer and baseball with special "beeper balls." The sound gets louder as the ball comes closer, so the blind child can kick or swing the bat at just the right time.
" . . . to be retarded?"
"I'm slow to learn," says 17-year-old Deeanna who is mentally retarded, "but I still hate it when someone calls me "reetard!"
Children should know that an accident before or during birth can cause a person to be "slow to learn," yet a retarded child has the same emotional and social needs as any other child.
"I get mad, I get happy and I understand lots more than most people think I do," says Deeanna, who holds a job, lives on her own in a supervised apartment and bowls on a team with "retarded people and not-retarded people all mixed together."
Symbols or pictures -- the drawing of a telephone above a phone booth -- help retarded people function in a "normal" world, even though many of them cannot read. Children can search for these symbols in public places and discuss how a shopping trip or bus ride could be made easier for a retarded classmate.
"Some retarded kids walk funny or eat funny," observes a sixth-grader.
Children do need to know that retarded children often move in unusual ways because motor and perception problems sometimes accompany mental retardation. They might cover their eyes with a thin layer of gauze and attempt to drop clothespins into a bottle, or try to color small squares on paper. The frustation generated by these activities helps children understand that it can be very distrubing to be called "reetard" when you are trying as hard as you can.
". . . to be deaf?"
"It's "deaf," not "death," explains a special-education teacher to a fifth-grade class. Children need to know, first of all, how to pronounce the word properly "so they don't associate it with some sort of terminal condition," says the parent of a deaf daughter.
Deaf children often wear hearing aids because it helps them hear some sounds louder. Yet many have never heard voices, including the sound of their own.
"That's why it's so hard for us to learn to speak," says Brian McCartney, a Columbia University doctoral candidate who is deaf. McMcartney, an "oralist" who uses speech and lip-reading to communicate, emphasized that children should understand that deaf people communicate in several different ways.
Children are often eager to master the manual alphabet of sign language and to learn some of the basics of talking with their hands.
"The children we've worked with love to learn and use simple signs and they remember them well," says Jon Stone, long-time producer of "Sesame Street" and colleague of Linda Bove, a deaf performer who teaches sign language on the show.
". . . to have a learning diability?"
"It makes it hard for our teachers and hard for us," says 11-year-old Tony.
"Kids like me who have a learning disability don't learn in the usual way."
Tony and several of his classmates who also are learning-disabled regularly invite other children to visit the Resource/Tutoring Room, where learning-disabled children receive special help in most public schools. "We like them to come," Tony says, "because then they know what it's all about and they don't call us dumb or crazy so much."
Problems with visual or auditory perception (characteristics of many learning disabilities) are difficult to explain to children, yet many can understand what it might be like when they participate in this simple activity. uHave them write the numbers 1 through 6 on an index card, while holding that card at her/his forehead. Many children, seeing that they've written the numbers upside down and backwards, can appreciate what it feels like to have your work come out all wrong.
". . . to be in a wheelchair?"
"Kids should know that it's sort of insulting for a person with CP (cerebral plasy) to hear kids call each other 'spastic,' 'cause spastic is a kind of CP," says 9-year-old Michelle, who has spastic cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.
Michelle remembers her first few days of school when some of her classmates were afraid to play with her. "They thought you could catch CP, like you catch chicken pox." She makes a point to tell new friends that cerebral palsy is not contagious, but something she was born with.
With her fourth-grade teacher, Michelle tells children about her head gear. "I tell the boys that it's not a football helmet." In addition, Michelle's teacher points out that although Michelle cannot speak intelligibly, she is not retarded.
Because cerebral palsy is a condition in which muscles are often very tense and uncontrolled, children can simulate CP by wearing two thick socks on each hand and attempting to button a flannel shirt. This activity demonstrates graphically the amount of effort and concentration disabled people need to accomplish seemingly simple tasks.
Because children are fascinated with wheelchairs, teachers might contact special-education departments of special schools to borrow one for a regular classroom.
"We keep an extra wheelchair in my room," says Michelle, "so sometimes I can race with another kid, and so that they can get to know more about me and about what being in a wheelchair is really like."