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Students learn about handicaps through understanding

Workshop enlightens sixth-graders on living with disabilities
By: Susan Belknap Press-Tribune Editor
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The sixth-graders at Excelsior Elementary School in Roseville know what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. They also understand how it feels to ride in someone’s wheelchair and use someone’s cane. After participating in a special workshop/assembly last week sponsored by A Touch of Understanding, the students learned about all types of disabilities, those on the outside as well as those inside. Leslie DeDora, executive director of A Touch of Understanding, which is a disability awareness program based in Granite Bay, began the presentation by asking students about when they feel happy and sad. She showed them an old-fashioned leg brace and shoe. If you had to wear this shoe, would you be happy?” Could you still be a good reader or be good at math” she asked. She also asked the students how they would feel if someone made fun of them because they had to wear the special shoe. After listening to their answers and showing a video that featured a number of disabled children playing tennis, basketball, baseball and swimming, the Excelsior students were divided into small groups where they took turns learning about specific types of disabilities. In one corner of the room students wrote their name in Braille with the help of a Braille stylus and slate, which was not an easy task for many. “If you had practice at this, it would be easier,” said sixth-grader Alex Lada. “I think it’s good to learn about other people’s disabilities so you can better understand all the trouble it takes them to do certain things,” said student Brenna Myers. After exposure to writing and reading in Braille, students found out what it would be like to get around without their eyes as they learned how to use a cane. With closed eyes, students walked around the Excelsior campus with the aid of a cane, some with better directional instincts than others as negotiating down steps and away from shrubbery was a challenge for a few. “The hardest part about being blind would be not knowing where and when to turn,” said student Jason Lutz. In addition to learning about what it would be like to be blind, students were shown various forms of prosthetics and orthotics, how the world appears to someone with dyslexia and how to maneuver a wheelchair. For student Preston Allen going up hills in the chair was difficult. “This is quite an experience,” Allen said. “When you see people in wheelchairs you don’t realize what they have to do.” Excelsior teacher Jenifer Gill has seen the Touch of Understanding presentation several times. She said she thinks it’s an important lesson for her students to help prepare them to go on to junior high school. “This program raises children’s’ awareness,” she said. “And with that comes compassion.” Besides the various hands-on activities, students participated in a question and answer session with three TOU volunteers who all have various forms of disabilities. For DeDora, spending the morning at Excelsior is all in a day’s work. She founded A Touch of Understanding in 1996. She said she became aware of various disabilities at an early age because of one of her aunts who had developmental disabilities. “I was confused by her behavior but it allowed me the opportunity to befriend people with disabilities when I was young,” she said. Today the volunteers and staff of the organization conduct at least two presentations per week throughout Placer, Sacramento, El Dorado, Calaveras, Solano and Yolo counties. DeDora said the program is usually presented when children are in second grade and then is reinforced once the children reach fifth grade or sixth grade. TOU staff member Susan Dunbar said she knows the presentations have long-lasting impressions on many of the students. “We have several kids who saw our assembly in grade school and are coming back to us now as college students who want to volunteer for us,” she said. What: Fundraiser for Touch of Understanding-Harlem Ambassadors basketball game When: 7 p.m. Monday, May 4 Where: Del Oro High School Info: www.touchofunderstanding.org