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The biggest part of the word disability is ability

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Mix a dedicated mother, a teacher, an adaptive physical education itinerant teacher and a powerful day emerged for students who attend Soldotna Montessori School and Soldotna Elementary School in April 2012. Both schools’ principals were supportive of working together to offer experiential exercises to teach tolerance and compassion for all people, and create an opening for both schools to talk about these tough issues. An excellent learning opportunity for students, the gymnasium was packed with activity stations where students physically experienced a new sensation of moving in the world and with others.

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Jordana Engebretsen, a vision teacher who participated from Kenai Middle School said, “I am a teacher with a disability. I believe most of the issues that a person with a disability experiences are due to ignorance and misconceptions. I think teaching our students about disabilities or what I called mix-abilities is very important. I would like to see events like this organized district wide.” Soldotna Montessori Principal Mo Sanders, explained, “My brother was ‘disabled.’ He didn’t see it that way, though. He always said the biggest part of the word disability is ability. It was a joy to observe the kids from both schools experiencing the many different ways individuals are able to take part in life.”

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Parent and advocate Tonja Updike envisioned the collaborative, experiential event. She said, “I am a parent of three children, and my middle child experiences autism. I volunteer and sit on various boards across the state such as the Governors Council for Disabilities and Special Education, a board member of the Special Education Service agency (SESA), a member of the Autism Society of Alaska, as well as speaking on disabilities and autism across the state. I have gone into classrooms to offer trainings on autism and wanted to do something different. Our idea was that instead of doing an assembly where the kids just sat and listened to me the whole time, they would come in and do activities together. Logistically, to make sure that there would always be a Montessori and Soldotna Elementary class together, we decided to divide the times into class grades so all kindergarten classes would attend together, and so forth. Each group would spend 30 minutes to do the activities, with the last few minutes spent talking and processing the experiences. The activities were taken from various places to give the students an idea on what it’s like to have different disabilities. The intent is multifaceted:

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• Both schools are working together
• Teaching tolerance and compassion for all people (including those with disabilities)
• Creating an opening for both schools to talk about these tough issues

It is difficult to truly understand what it is like for other people unless you put yourself in their shoes. So we needed to create simulations. To do this we needed to work with different senses and offer several stations in order to provide an experience of what a person with a disability might feel. For example, the only way to feel blind is to take away the sense of sight—so blindfolding kids while trying to do an everyday activity helps kids understand the difficulties others face. Another example of sensory overstimulation is orchestrating a group of kids in a circle all saying different things, with one person in the center who is trying to figure out what they are supposed to do. All of the stations are meant to show the kids that they are each unique and we can all be good at some things and have a hard time with others. Also, with tolerance and compassion we can help others who are having difficulties, and that people who are different (whether they have disabilities or not) are not scary, they are people just like them.”

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The day took effort, which was well-spent. The students participated, asked questions, and reflected. One young boy wrote, “I learned that disabilities do not mean that you can’t do what regular people do. Just because you’re blind doesn’t mean you can’t read. Though you have a disability doesn’t mean you can’t do something.” Another young boy, Colton, wrote, “Dear Journal, Today I went to the gym and there were places where you find out how people with disabilities get around. My favorite was the one with the blind person because it really meant something to me. She acts like she has no disability and that made me realize that everyone is the same. They still are a person. I should act like a normal person too.”

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Soldotna Elementary principal Teri Diamond said, “We are excited to create and nurture these experiences for our students. We are proud of both the interest our students are taking and the compassion and kindness they have demonstrated throughout the school. The opportunity for our children to experience the challenges that some people have to overcome daily strengthens character and builds knowledge. We are also very fortunate to have such strong advocates like Tina Gilman, Tonja Updike, and Carloyn Hitzler to help provide these opportunities. They are always a source of inspiration, and the volunteer time they put into this event is truly appreciated. Hopefully we can continue this and make it an annual event.”

December 3 marks the international observance of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities promoted by the United Nations since 1992. The day aims to promote an understanding of people with disabilities and encourage support for their dignity, rights, and well-being. In the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, understanding and awareness is cultivated daily through our Pupil Services department, dedicated staff and parents. 

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