Monday, September 3, 2012

Educating the Grown Ups

Through my coordination of the Spread the Word campaign, I interact with school representatives at every level within seven area school districts: superintendents to principals to teachers.  We at Wendell Foster’s Campus (WFC) recognize these school representatives are extremely busy, especially the teachers, so when we are invited into the schools to speak, we are very grateful for the opportunity.  A few schools annually invite us to speak to their students; this year, I presented to over 1100 students ranging from 5th – 8th grades in Daviess County and Owensboro public schools.  I also spoke to a group of students participating on the “Everybody Counts” council (pictured), a body of 4th and 5th grade leaders advocating the acceptance of diversity within the school.

While a few teachers incorporated the campaign’s theme into classroom assignments, and/or encouraged student participation in the poster contests, only one school outside of Daviess County took advantage of the informational presentation.  As a result, many posters reflected students’ misunderstanding of the Campaign’s message and intent. For example, we received dozens of posters showing someone in a wheelchair or on crutches being asked to play basketball.  While reflecting the importance of inclusion, the posters failed to depict student understanding to the insensitivity of the “r” word.   Granted, March madness was well underway at that time as several Kentucky teams were competing for the NCAA championship.  I suppose we were all under the influence of basketball fever!

Our campaign presentation gets “real” with the students as to what it means to have an intellectual (ID) or developmental disability (DD), and student volunteers experience these "disabilities" firsthand with a sensitivity exercise.  The presentation also explains the physiological conditions many see when meeting someone with cerebral palsy using real-life examples.  These shares often generated an eye-opening “ah-ha” shift that move young listeners from ignorance to compassion.  Well-meaning adults unfamiliar with the plight of those we serve inadvertently provide incorrect information based on their limited understanding of these disabilities.  For example, one poster submitted by a young student repeatedly mentions the “r” word on it and states that “retard-retarded is a diaese [sic] (disease)”.  If this well-meaning student received any information at all, she received inaccurate information.

As much as we tend to underestimate the intelligence and capabilities of those with ID and DD, we also tend to underestimate the intelligence and ability of young students to understand grown-up things.  An elementary principal shared how her daughter “called out” an adult family member during a get-together for his use of the “r” word.  Having participating in the Campaign through her class, this young lady explained his use of this word was insensitive and hurtful and why.  Well-informed, and somewhat knowledgeable as to the challenges faced by those with disabilities, this student advocated greater compassion while teaching respect and sensitivity towards this population.

Talking to 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th graders may seem a daunting task, especially when the subject is developmental and intellectual disabilities, and I admit  that I initially felt nervous.  But after the first presentation for Spread the Word campaign, I understood how powerfully impactful this campaign is when these children began sharing their stories.  And heartbreaking stories they were!

In the Next Blog Entry: I've Got a Story! - “. . . . her brother has autism . . . . .  how moved she was by my presentation, adding I made her almost cry twice . . . . . her younger brother was taken from their family. . . .

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