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April 25, 2014

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Greenspun Junior High students take on disabilities to learn about peers

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Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Home News

As a participant in the school’s disABLED for the Day activity, Peter Shields, 11, attempts to do his science classwork through glasses that impaired his vision. Shields’ firsthand lesson in narrowed vision illustrates the disability of retinitis pigmentosa some students encounter in the classroom.

Click to enlarge photo

Abigale Houghton, 11, sits in a wheelchair while watching other students line up at her teacher's desk to turn in their papers during English class at Greenspun Junior High School.

Greenspun Junior High School eighth grader Devin Stevens never noticed the split between students with disabilities and those without in the lunchroom.

After spending a day with a deaf student and having to rely on sign language, he now sees the division during lunch period. He also wants it to change.

Last week was Inclusive Schools Week across the nation, focusing on ways to include all students in all aspects of school life, as well as educating students without disabilities on the daily challenges faced by students with disabilities.

Three years ago, Greenspun became an all-inclusive school, meaning students with disabilities are integrated into the classrooms and learn the same grade-specific curriculum as their peers.

Of the 1,340 students at Greenspun, 140 are classified as special needs. Special needs can range from attention deficit disorder to Down syndrome to being blind.

"I love this week," said Mindy Diskin, the dean of students and administrator over special education. "We find out so many things about our students and how deep they think."

Students selected disabilities to assume for a day.

Sixth grader Abigale Houghton spent a day in a wheelchair to get a glimpse of what a typical day at school is like for eighth grader Andre Collins, who has cerebral palsy and is deaf.

Seventh grader Jordan Houston spent a day shadowing his classmate Megan Bolton, who was born with out eyes and is partially deaf. Houston said it stood out to him that Bolton cannot see the chalkboard the way he can.

Sixth graders Samuel Bittner and Peter Shields selected to have impaired vision. The two covered goggles with duct tape — Bittner so that he could not see at all and Shields so that he had only partial vision.

Bittner left his classes five minutes early to give him time to navigate the halls.

"I kept my hand on a friend's shoulder to guide me," he said.

He thought his memory of the school layout would make it easy to get from one class to another, but he discovered he was wrong, he said.

Shields left his classes at the regular time and said it was hard to navigate the halls with only partial vision.

Eighth grader Beau McCue chose to spend the day with Collins and had to rely on sign language to communicate. He said he realized that students who cannot hear spend their school days pretty much like those who can.

"They do the same stuff we do," he said.

The week also included guest speaker Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger, an alumni of Notre Dame's football team who battled learning disabilities throughout his school years, and Sign Design, a performing group that uses sign language.

To culminate the week, students in Dean Giangrosso's art classes made a collage entitled "What inclusion means to me..." The 200 art students wrote one or two sentences on the meaning and decorated their panes to show their message. The panes will be hung up at Greenspun to form a mural of the week's messages.

Stevens and McCue said they would like to see students interact more with their peers who have disabilities.

"I think other kids don't know how to relate to them. But we learned that we can interact in many ways," McCue said.

He suggested writing letters to students who use sign language to communicate.

"We need to try to interact any way we can," he said.

Stevens said if all schools and students were to have the same experience he had during the past week, "everyone would know they aren't different." He once thought his peers with disabilities had easier school work but discovered during the week that was not the case.

"They do everything we do," he said.

Diana Cox can be reached at (702) 990-8183 or [email protected].

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