Kids learn about disabilities

Tim Koors/The Arizona Republic
Carolan Quenneville demonstrates to schoolchildren the tools she uses to lead a normal life.
'We're just like everyone else,' guest lecturers tell Keller Elementary students

Mel Melndez
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 29, 2003 12:00 AM

MESA - The Keller Elementary School fifth-graders sat huddled on the multimedia center's floor, stealing glances at the wheelchair, crutches and orthopedic shoes that assist those with disabilities.

"We all have some sort of disability, but it isn't always obvious to the eye," said guest lecturer Ann Pasco, volunteer coordinator for Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL), pointing to other speakers. "But the one thing I want you to get from this presentation is that we're just like everyone else. We just do things a little differently."

It didn't take long for students to grasp that concept Tuesday during the group's 30-minute presentation.

As part of Keller's third annual Disability Awareness Week, students alternated presentations with other activities, including poster-making contests and Braille and American Sign Language competitions. The campaign aims to help students understand the challenges often faced by those with disabilities, Principal Suzy Dupke said.

"I think more schools should have something like this. But few do," Dupke said. "This is critical for us because we have 130 special-education students that are a very integral part of our school."

Elementary schools typically have either a primary special-education program for first- through third-graders or an intermediate program for fourth- through sixth-graders, she said.

"But I wanted both programs so the students could stay at one elementary school," Dupke said. "It's not fair how special-ed students are moved around so much."

Arizona has about 100,000 special-education students, about 11 percent of all students.

Federal law requires that they receive an education that is equal to that of other students.
Students' disabilities can range from mild speech impediments to severe autism.

Regardless of their disability, the law requires special-needs students be integrated into "regular" classrooms as often as possible.

"That's become routine for us, which is the way it should be," Dupke said. "My teachers know that if they don't want a child with a disability in their classroom, then this isn't the place for them."

Tuesday's speakers all hailed from ABIL, a non-profit organization that aims to empower those with disabilities. They included Pasco, who has multiple sclerosis, John Brewer, a peer mentor with cerebral palsy, and Carolan Quenneville, a graphics specialist with rheumatoid arthritis.

Students learned the specifics of speakers' disabilities and the tools they use, such as crutches, leg braces and wheelchairs, that help them live productive lives.

Some pointed questions showed students understood the discrimination often felt by those with disabilities.

"Do people stare at you funny when you walk down the street?" asked 11-year-old Chelsea Drake, eluding to Quenneville's thick-soled orthopedic shoes and crutches.

"I don't even notice it anymore," Quenneville said. "But when I do, I try to educate them."

"Kids love my shoes, and I tell them they're great for mud puddles and to squash bugs," she added, eliciting laughter from the students.

Pasco said she contacted various Valley school districts to offer ABIL's free speakers. But only a handful of schools, three in Phoenix, and one each from Gilbert, Tempe and Mesa, responded.

"It's a little disheartening because these kids are the future," Pasco said. "It's important that they know that people with disabilities make solid contributions to society."

The students seemed to receive the message loud and clear.

"This was really good because it makes me see how they do everything we do only it's harder for them," Chelsea said. "It makes me think more highly of them now that I know all the stuff they go through."

For information on ABIL, call (602) 256-2245.