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Disability awareness program helps students understand special needs

Emblem kids see a different perspective

Posted: February 5, 2009 1:02 a.m.
Updated: February 5, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Third-grader Gabby Schibsser tries to trace a pattern while looking at it in a mirror as part of a disability awareness program at Emblem Elementary School on Wednesday.

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Six Emblem Elementary School students sat at a table, put on a pair of laboratory goggles smudged with Vaseline and tried reading aloud from a book Wednesday.

As they struggled to find the right page number, many of the fifth-graders at the Saugus school held the book inches away from their faces while others shifted their goggles to find a clear spot to see out of.

"That's what it feels like when you have a vision problem," Karen Forletta, Emblem school psychologist, said when the children first put on the goggles.

A handful of the students made it through a few phrases before the frustration set in.

"I can't see anything," one student said.

"I can see the words, but they're very blurry," said another.

The interactive session was part of Emblem's pilot disability awareness program created by Forletta.

First- through sixth-graders spent the day learning about what it's like to have a range of disabilities, from visual and hearing impairments, learning disabilities, physical impairments and visual-motor integration difficulties, Forletta said.

Under the leadership of school psychologists and a retired resource specialist teacher, dozens of general education students tried to complete everyday tasks like reading and writing while experiencing a disability.

Nearly 30 pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade special needs students from the Saugus Union School District attend Emblem because the school offers specialized classes and programs that target the different special needs, ranging from autism to Down Syndrome.

Special needs students typically learn in individualized classrooms at Emblem, but there are times when they interact during recess or school-wide programs. The school also hosts a buddy program when general education students pair with special needs students for a range of school activities.

The idea behind the disability awareness program is to remove the uncertainty or nervousness kids feel when interacting with special education students.

"When they see them on campus, they understand more," said Emblem Principal Julie Bogosian said.
For older students, the program tries to increase sensitivity, Forletta said.

Half of the school went through the program last week while the rest of the students spent Wednesday at the program's stations.

"I've (received) good feedback. Kids love the program," Forletta said.

It's a connection that was evident Wednesday as the children shuffled to the different stations.

At the visual-motor integration station, kids used their non-dominant hand to write. Another task involved using a mirror to trace lines on a piece of paper.

"I realize that I never thought about that people have so many challenges in their lives," said 10-year-old Francesca Ferraro.

With an understanding of how people with special needs feel, the experience inspired Ferraro.
"You can help people with their challenges," the fifth-grader said.

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