Students at Highland Terrace Elementary School participated in an unusual educational experience put on by Youth Awareness Disability Assemblies (YADA), a local nonprofit group that visits schools to teach about different disabilities through a variety of fun activities.
YADA, now in its fifth year, not only increases awareness; it creates a dialogue between the students and the disabled. That’s because many of YADA’s 30 or so volunteers are living with some kind of disability.
“Everybody is different,” says YADA director Laurie Fike, who has multiple sclerosis. “When I was a child I wasn’t allowed to ask questions about disabilities. We simply didn’t confront it. We want these kids to understand that the disabled are just people like anybody else.”
So YADA volunteers encourage the students to ask questions and, in return, they promise candid answers.
The students filed into the gym over the course of a two-day program April 4-5, one class at a time, where they went through a series of five short tutorials. As they cycled through different stations they learned interactively about a variety of disabilities, from dyslexia to Tourette’s syndrome.
At one station, Tom Kanoppi, Joe Sapienza and Chuck Karczewski teach students how to do wheelies in a wheelchair, a talent that, as Kanoppi explains, is not only fun, it’s also functional.
“These are things we use every day,” said Kanoppi, spinning around a few times to showcase some of his moves. “I use wheelies when I’m dancing, but I also use them to get up a curb.”
The students seem to catch on quickly to the equipment, but the difficulty involved is not lost on them.
“That’s pretty hard to learn,” said Matt West, 11. “I guess once you get used to it, it probably gets easier.”
Steven Sweeney, 12, added, “It’s hard for disabled people. But it’s good there’s all this stuff to help them overcome their obstacles.”
For Kanoppi, paralyzed in a drunk-driving accident, the lessons he teaches are twofold.
“I should be plant fertilizer,” said Kanoppi. “I have nobody to blame but myself. I realized I could become a vegetable or move on. Doing this, I can teach the kids about disabilities and drunk driving.”
In addition to the activities, there was a question-and-answer session where students could ask the volunteers what it’s like to live with their respective disabilities.
“A lot of times kids ask better questions than adults would,” Fike said.
At the dyslexia station, the goal is to trace a star on a piece of paper while looking at the paper in a mirror. For the students, it’s a lesson in understanding and acceptance.
“This has been fabulous,” said Highland Terrace principal Miriam Tencate. “The kids have just raved about it. Many of them have said things like ‘now when I see people with disabilities I won’t be scared.’ That, I think, is the best part. It takes the fear component out of the classroom.”
YADA is looking for more volunteers and organizations to participate. Those interested in volunteering or booking the group to visit their school can call Fike at 425-486-6925. The group is booking as far in advance as 2007.
Chad Schuster is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.