What is life like for a person with a disability? What’s it like to be blind, or use a wheelchair, or use sign language to communicate?
Of course, no one can truly understand what it’s like to be another person, but by paying attention, asking questions, and trying to “walk in someone else’s shoes”, we can learn a lot about each other’s experiences. If children learn to understand the lives of people with disabilities, chances are they’ll grow up to be more empathetic adults.
Abilities in Motion: building empathy
For a week in May, all the kids in all the grades at Richard McBride Elementary School in New Westminster, BC, made the effort to learn about people with disabilities and the particular challenges of their lives. Students participated in a program called “Abilities In Motion” or AIM for short, which was developed by the Rick Hansen Foundation to help students in schools across Canada learn about people with disabilities. The week began on Friday, May 1, with a visit from Teri Thorson, a Rick Hansen Ambassador. Teri is a mom, a designer, and a person with a disability – she became a quadriplegic after a car accident. Her presentations help people to understand that people with disabilities can have wonderful family lives, and pursue their interests and ambitions.
Learning through direct experience
During the week that followed Teri’s presentation, the intermediate classes researched the challenges faced by people with disabilities. The primary classes had a chance to try some of the lessons in the AIM program. Voluntary lunch time activities during the week included learning sign language, doing a scavenger hunt in braille and – most popular of all – a visit from some working guide dogs.
On May 7, the students participated in a riotous Abilities Afternoon, which featured different stations, each with an activity for the students to try, including an obstacle course, a sign language race, a silent dance, and something called a “human knot”.
Visiting each station allowed students to simulate the experience of having a disability while working with others to complete ordinary tasks.
Janis Bridger, a teacher at McBride, says that her grade one class got a lot out of the experience of AIM week. She described the lessons as very enlightening, adding that the students became more aware when they tried the activities and experienced the disabilities for themselves. “It’s important for kids to experience this earlier in life so they grow up to be more inclusive and mindful.”
She notes that the lunchtime events, which weren’t mandatory for students, were very well attended. Janis says that the activities and lessons “fit into our learning about being caring, thoughtful, and mindful. Everyone is capable of something, is good at some things [and needs help with others]”.
Understanding life from a new perspective
The benefits of participating extended to even the youngest children at the school. Kindergarten Montessori teacher Devon Codesmith says the children learned to try new activities in a different way, to challenge themselves even if something is difficult to do, and ultimately began to learn and accept that people with disabilities can still live normal lives. The activities – such as trying to draw while wearing socks on your hands to simulate restricted motion – are designed to make learning fun.
Joanne Simpson, who also teaches at McBride, says the impact of the learning on the children will emerge over time, but a follow-up activity gave a clear indication that the kids got the message. The local Boston Pizza, a supporter of the Rick Hansen Foundation School Program, had given the school some certificates for prizes, and the kids had to write essays to compete for them. Reading the essays, Joanne could see that “they got it”. One child pointed out that “even the smallest hills are hard”; another child produced a six page essay in which he detailed the help he would need if he experienced a disability, but noted that his family would still love him just the same.
If you would like your students to learn about the potential of people with disabilities and the importance of inclusion and accessibility, you can find out more about our Abilities In Motion resources here.