Originally created 02/26/97

Disability hits home for pupils



AIKEN - Chukker Creek third-grader Bryan Thompson barely kept his balance Tuesday while trying to write his name using only his mouth and a Q-Tip dipped in red paint.

A few feet away, 9-year-old David Grubic grimaced and shrugged his shoulders while trying to complete a writing assignment dictated by a garbled, and at times, inaudible tape-recorded voice.

It was a frustrating morning for these and other students at the elementary school.

And it was meant to be.

The purpose of the first-ever Disability Awareness Day at the school was to teach students what it's really like going through life with a handicap - paralysis or loss of limbs in Bryan's case and loss of hearing in David's. The lesson was also to teach student how to be more sensitive to handicapped people's needs.

"We're just targeting the third grade because we feel we can still change children's behavior toward other children and really make an impact on them," Chukker Creek Elementary Assistant Principal Alice Sheehan said.

The message seemed to get through.

"It kind of felt like you were just in a dark room," said Caitlyn Murdaugh, 9, after trying to put peanut butter on a cracker and pour a cup of water while blindfolded to simulate blindness. "I feel sorry for people like that."

After writing his name, which ended up more like a red blur, Bryan's first thought was a simple one.

"I'm glad I have arms," he said.

At one booth, students were given a series of math questions to answer and were continually told to hurry up. That exercise showed them what it's like for some students with Attention Deficit Disorder to complete tasks on time, Dr. Sheehan said.

Other students were reduced to helpless giggles while trying to balance a lunch tray with a make-believe bowl of soup on their laps as they sat in wheel-chairs or used walkers to support themselves.

"What happened to that soup? It ran down your feet," parent volunteer Anne Jones told a student in a wheelchair, whose bowl was tipping too much. "What are you going to have to do? You're going to have to ask someone for help."

Beth Austin started the program in Florence in 1990 after talking with a parent from Florence, S.C., who has twins, one with disabilities and one without.

Mrs. Austin could relate to the woman because she has a 17-year-old educable mentally-retarded son and an 11-year-old son who is not disabled.

Both parents also realized that their children without disabilities often are asked by classmates what is wrong with their disabled siblings.

With that in mind, Ms. Austin started the program to heighten disabilities awareness in all students.

"I just think that awareness is the key to it all and children are not cruel if they understand what disabilities are," Mrs. Austin said. "And (the program) gives them the chance to ask questions (about disabilities)."