When students from Ms. Atkinson's third-grade class see a person using a wheelchair to get around, they know what it feels like. They've tried it. They know that a short stairway or a high curb can be a big hurdle. They know that some people look at you funny when you're in a wheelchair. They know that other people may ignore you or look the other way.
Ms. Atkinson's students, who go to school in Hayward, Calif., took part in a disabilities awareness program called "Each & Every One." The program is designed for kids in kindergarten through third grade. It has been used in 25,000 classrooms around the country.
During the program, students are blindfolded and use a cane. They practice reading Braille. They try to button their clothes wearing socks on their hands, and they see what it feels like to get around their school building in a wheelchair.
What do the kids learn from these exercises? That physically challenged people are very much like them. A student in a wheelchair may not be able to run down the stairs -- but he or she is still anxious to get out on the playground. A blind student may not be able to see the blackboard -- but he or she still wants to learn. A student with cerebral palsy may not be able to write a neat paper by hand -- but he or she still has ideas and opinions to express.
But when children first meet people with physical disabilities, they may feel uncomfortable and not know how to act, says James Wasco, a physician with the New Medico Head Injury System in Lynn, Massachusetts. He works with patients who have been disabled by head injuries. His program helps them return to their communities, work and schools as soon as they can.
Kids may be confused or frightened when they see people who look different from them. And when kids are confused or scared, they may say or do hurtful things like teasing someone or calling them names.
There are approximately 35 million Americans who have physical disabilities. Because of improved medical care, an increasing number of disabled adults are able to live independently, Wasco says. And because of a law called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, many disabled children attend "regular" schools just like other children do. The law, which was passed by Congress in 1975, says that handicapped children have a right to be educated in the least restrictive environment possible.
What this means is that it's likely there are kids with disabilities in your school or classroom. When you meet them, you may wonder how to act. The best advice: Be yourself. You may feel awkward at first, but you'll soon find out that the disabled student in your class is just another kid like you. You'll have a lot in common -- you might both love the New Kids on the Block -- or you might both hate them. You might both collect baseball cards or enjoy playing Nintendo. Pretty soon, you'll have a new friend.
"Treat a person with a disability as you would anybody else. Everyone is different; people with disabilities just have differences that are more obvious," Wasco says. If you know someone who has physical disabilities, you can offer to help them. But you should do it gently and never insist, he says. "A polite, 'May I help you?' is very effective."
If the person prefers to do whatever it is himself or herself, don't interfere. Wasco reminds kids to include their disabled friends in all their activities -- at birthday parties, on the playground, at lunch or on a shopping trip to the mall or an expedition to the movies. Ask your parents, teachers or your disabled friend's parents if there are special things you need to know to help your disabled friend during your activity.
"Children need not be frightened or timid when they meet a person with a disability," he says. "A little education can break down a lot of barriers."Tips for Parents
"Each & Every One" was developed in conjunction with Barbara Aiello of "The Kids on the Block," a program that brings puppets that represent children with differences and disabilities into classrooms. For more information, call 1-800-368-KIDS. In Maryland, call (301) 290-9095. James Wasco, medical director of the New Medico Head Injury System, a nationwide network of some 35 head-injury facilities across the country, says that parents can help teach their children how to interact with people with disabilities. He suggests: When talking to a person with a disability, children should speak directly to that person and maintain eye contact. Don't panic if your child asks a blunt or embarrassing question. Most people understand a child's curiosity. Explain that the person has a disability but otherwise is just like everyone else. Ask the teachers at your child's school to help educate students about disability. One idea is to ask students to simulate a handicap: use just one arm or sit in a wheelchair all day. "Setting a good example for your children is crucial," says Wasco. Catherine O'Neill is a freelance children's writer.