St. Gregory the Great Catholic Academy in Woodbridge recently held a simulation activity where students had a first-hand experience to learn what it’s like to live with a disability. The half-day learning experience was made possible by ICAN (Inclusive Community Ambassador Network).
Students in the Junior PACE Program at the school were able to experience a particular disability or impairment through the use of aids such as wheelchairs, braces, and blindfolds and challenged to go through their routine activities for the day. The students then reflected on their experiences with a new awareness and perspective about various disabilities and impairments.
Prior to the activity teachers led students through several activities that raised awareness and empathy, while dispelling some of the myths, about living with disabilities. Students reviewed and discussed the concept of stereotypes and common assumptions made about people with disabilities, which are often negative, insensitive and incorrect. Students then completed an activity in which they discussed the preferred language to use when referring to individuals living with an impairment or disability. From this activity students were able to understand the power of words.
When words are used incorrectly, they can hurt and diminish a person’s sense of worth. Yet when words are used correctly, they can empower individuals to reach their full potential.
On the day of the simulation students were divided and assigned different disabilities: visually impaired students wore blindfolds and used walking sticks; fine-motor impaired students wore braces and gloves; hearing impaired students wore sound-proof headphones and used a word chart to communicate; and mobility impaired students were confined to a wheelchair. The students worked with a partner, one acted as the guide, and the other as the person with a disability. Students then proceeded through the day experiencing a variety of school activities including: book exchange and story time in the library; having a snack; completing a math worksheet and spelling quiz; and a group tower building activity using connecting blocks. Students found that daily activities that they would otherwise find routine and straightforward were much more challenging given their disability.
After the ICAN simulation experience ended, students reflected on their experiences and shared their new found perspective through journaling, poetry, rapping, writing a song, or performing a skit. Students were able to reflect on the most challenging aspect of the disability, the physical and time barriers they faced, the emotions they felt throughout the day, reactions from others and how their own opinions changed from this experience.
A common emotion students said they experienced was frustration. Some students felt frustrated and stressed when they could not complete the task as quickly as they would have liked, or when other students assumed they couldn’t do the task at all. A student who used a wheelchair remarked that ‘it was a challenge trying to move around with it. If there was a tight space, I’d have to go around which would take a long time. Going up and down in the elevator also took more time than the rest of the class.’ A Grade 5 student reflected on his change of opinion throughout the activity, ‘I used to think people with disabilities couldn’t do as much as me, but now I know that they are perfectly capable of doing the same things, just in a different way.’
Students learned that as Catholics, we are all called to embrace diversity. Through this simulation students realized that our school community is called to be more inclusive and accessible to people who have disabilities. Students gained a fresh perspective on compassion, understanding and patience and ultimately learned that feeling like you belong is a universal need that creates confidence, friendships and inclusion.