Here are stories and testimonials from individuals associated with A Touch of Understanding.
The Change in a Fifth-Grade Boy
The fifth grade children began filing into the multipurpose room one early fall morning. They took their seat on the floor, with the exception of one boy, Mark (name changed), who used a motorized wheelchair.
As I began to question the students about their own strengths and challenges, Mark answered with short, inappropriate responses, rudely and out of turn. The teachers repeatedly corrected him, but he was determined to interrupt the discussion.
This continued while I demonstrated the equipment on display. His behavior abruptly changed when I held up the type of leg brace he wore. His face brightened, he sat up straight in his chair. He was eager to tell us about them. When we encouraged his input, he quickly took off his shoe, brace and sock and showed his classmates the scars from corrective surgery.
As he began to speak, a classmate sitting right next to his chair started to laugh. Thankfully this didn’t deter Mark. He explained the reason he needed the braces and how he put them on every morning. He began to tell of his experiences at Shriners Hospital for Children and some of his impressive medical knowledge. This young boy, who a few minutes before was a source of interruption, was now leading the discussion. His classmate was no longer laughing, but looking at Mark with a serious, sincere expression.
Following the completion of the program, the children filed from the multipurpose room headed back to their classrooms. One of the adults asked if they had enjoyed A Touch of Understanding. Mark looked up and answered boldly, “Yes! And I helped!”
A Touch of Understanding allowed Mark to share his experiences and knowledge far beyond his years, with his classmates. ATOU, through discussions and the activity stations, (wheelchairs, crutches, canes, Braille, artificial limbs, braces and mirror-writing) helped his fifth grade classmates to better understand the challenges he and others with disabilities face on a daily basis. His classmates’ actions changed from disrespectful to those of understanding and acceptance. A Touch of Understanding allowed this young boy to speak on his own behalf to educate his peers.
From our Volunteer, JDD’s Perspective
Ruby and I were working together helping children learn how to use the white mobility canes. This activity gives the students a little bit of an idea of how I navigate as a blind person.
When Stephanie, a fourth grader, was introduced to me, I could barely hear her little voice and could make out almost none of the few words she spoke. I was told that she normally is in a wheelchair but that her aide was going to hold her up while she tried to walk with her eyes closed, swinging the white cane in front of her. She tried for a few moments and found it was too difficult. Another aid came to help, so Stephanie was able to walk with her eyes closed using the white cane. At the end of the exercise, I asked the group how the experience felt. Stephanie’s voice was just as loud and clear as everyone else’s. She agreed, “It felt weird!”
From a Teacher’s Perspective
When we received a questionnaire with responses indicating a definite improvement in interactions between students including those with disabilities, we requested a description about the benefit of A Touch of Understanding from a teacher’s perspective. This was the response.
From a Teacher’s perspective, special needs, autism, above grade level, reaching benchmark are all terms familiar to today’s educator.
Teaching Second Grade for almost 20 years in the Eureka Union School District has brought many challenging moments. Within my own class of 18 active seven year olds, three have ADHD, a number of youngsters are beyond grade level, while many of their peers are two years behind. Single parent families, blended families, spending long hours in daycare also factor into the everyday routine of this school year. In addition, I have a young boy who is autistic and has a full-time aide, as well as increased resource assistance. Hence, with such a variety of traits, a genuine community-building environment is imperative.
Fortunately, our District is granted the opportunity to participate in A Touch of Understanding each year. This program continues to be invaluable in teaching the students to be more tolerant, patient and understanding of others. My students were able to ride in a wheelchair, touch artificial limbs, practice mirror writing and read using the Braille method. Although Mrs. DeDora brought this program to our school in January, comments are still shared which relate to the content as we meet in class meetings or read literature about people who have disabilities.
I truly believe that my students gained a new acceptance of others and were informed about various learning styles by participating in A Touch of Understanding. One of my goals in preparing my students for their future is to develop the “whole child.” This concept goes beyond my responsibility to teach reading and writing, to developing caring, capable citizens. The varied experiences offered by Mrs. DeDora’s program assist in this goal and instill a wealth of life knowledge for my students as they continue on their path to adulthood. Hence, I am most grateful to participate with my students in this excellent program.
– Terri Lewin, Second Grade Teacher, Maidu Elementary School
Beth, a Second-Grade Girl
As the ATOU Team arrived at an elementary school in Placer County, we were told there was a girl who was blind, Beth (name changed), in one of the classes. We were also told this child was deathly afraid of dogs.
One of our new speakers is a woman who lost her sight two years ago. Darlene said that after two sightless years, she had mastered life within her home, and was ready to venture out. She eagerly joined us to this school to speak with the students.
Darlene and Beth spoke to the class about the challenging experiences they share. Beth also demonstrated how to use a mobility cane for her classmates during our activity centers.
As an added bonus, one of Beth’s personal hurdles was overcome. Our volunteer, Mike Penketh, who uses two myoelectric hands, had his service dog, Magy, with him. Knowing that Beth was terrified of dogs, Mike wondered if he could help her overcome her fear. When they were introduced, Mike asked if Beth would help him. He told her that because he had no hands, there was something he really wanted to do, but could not. He could not pet his best friend. He could not tell how soft she was. Would Beth help him by petting Magy? Beth agreed. She reached down and touched Magy’s golden fur.
Nervously, she asked, “Is this a dog?”
Mike quickly replied, “Yes. Magy is my service dog. She goes everywhere with me to help me. Is she soft?”
After a pause, Beth replied with a smile, “Really soft!” and she continued to stroke Magy’s head and back.
Mike said, “Thank you for helping me pet my friend.”
A Touch of Understanding has enriched Darlene’s life, allowing her to spend time with upbeat, enthusiastic children. It has introduced Beth to a woman with the same disability and similar challenges. Together they enlightened Beth’s classmates with their experiences and insights. A Touch of Understanding also helped Beth deal with a major fear and gave Mike the satisfaction of helping her. By “helping” Mike, she took the first step in overcoming her fear of dogs. And her classmates joined in her joy.
Anger Can be Disabling
A group of children of mixed ages came into the gymnasium for A Touch of Understanding. One boy, who was bigger than the others, sat off to the side. The other children seemed to leave a space between themselves and Daniel (name changed).
The first portion of our presentation is open discussion about the fact that, whether society would label us disabled or not, we all have strengths and challenges. This breaks down the wall of “us” and “them” in the minds of the participants. The children begin to look inside themselves and realize that they have things in which they excel and things with which they struggle. Most importantly, they realize this is true for each of their peers as well.
I asked Daniel’s class, “What is hard for you? It might be here at school, at home, in your neighborhood, or just within yourself?” Children told of problems such as losing loved ones, academic difficulty, tense family and social relationships.
Daniel sat quietly until there was a pause, and he raised his hand. He simply said, “Fighting.” I asked if he got into lots of fights. He nodded.
Daniel’s teacher came up to me following the program and thanked me. She said it was the first time Daniel admitted he had a problem with fighting. She confided in me that it was a real problem for the teachers and students as well, which could be seen by the seating arrangements. Daniel’s behavior had ostracized him. His teacher felt that his admission during A Touch of Understanding was the first step in correcting the problem and mending relationships.
An Unexpected Benefit
This success story is written by one of our volunteers, Mike Penketh, who lost both hands in an attempt to break the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats. When his race car rolled, one hand was sheared off and the other so badly damaged that it needed to be removed. He now uses two myoelectric hands and still flies aerobatic airplanes from the Nut Tree Airport. His story tells of one of our unanticipated benefits of A Touch of Understanding which took place this summer at our Volunteer Appreciation Picnic.
About two years after I got involved with ATOU as a speaker, I started bringing a “special assistant” with me to all ATOU functions. This “special assistant” is a specialist at crowd control whether it be a class of third graders or a group of parents. I sometimes refer to this “special assistant” as a “teen-age blond” but in reality she is a two-year old, sixty pound, golden Retriever who, when not on the agility course, catching a Frisbee or retrieving rocks from the bottom of the pool, accompanies me twenty-four hours a day as a service dog.
Animals have a means of communication with children that is unbelievable. In a matter of seconds, Magy is in total control of an entire class as she rolls on her back for a tummy rub. Kids mob towards her; recess and lunch bells, and even teachers, are seldom heard.
This past August at our annual ATOU Picnic, we met Courtney, who is the daughter of ATOU President, Brenda Osiow. As I watched Courtney and her father play Frisbee, Magy sat patiently by my side. I noticed Courtney had a physical impairment with the motor functions of her right side. She was the victim of hemiplegia at birth. This did not seem to slow Courtney a bit; a pretty, enthusiastic little girl who appeared to enjoy life to the fullest.
Magy intently watched this game of Frisbee. She sees things differently than her two-legged friends. First, Frisbees are the greatest things in the world. Secondly, Magy sees all kids as toys; toys whose sole function are to play with her! A kid with a Frisbee! What more could Magy want?
Magy was all smiles as I motioned Courtney over to meet her. Courtney seemed a little shy but that was soon to disappear. “Throw it, Courtney,” and Magy was off in a flash. In the dust, a special smile came upon Courtney’s’ face; a smile that Magy created. I proceeded to explain and demonstrate some basic commands: stay, sit, down, shake, behind, hold, heel, side and give. I also explained that my best friend, Magy, was considered a service animal, and she could legally accompany me wherever I went.
Courtney and Magy became an instant team as she proudly and confidently demonstrated her newly acquired skills as a dog handler to her Mom. Her confidence was becoming more apparent by the minute. I had never met Courtney before that day, but the smile on her face was something that had to be seen.
Later discussions with Brenda and ATOU Executive Director, Leslie DeDora, revealed that Courtney at times had a balance problem which caused me to suggest the possibility of a service dog. After watching the confidence, fun and pleasure created by Magy, we were all in agreement to pursue a service dog for Courtney.
My next step was to put Brenda and Courtney in contact with our good friend Nancy Sawhney. Nancy is an ATOU volunteer and also serves on the Board of Directors for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). A very informal question/answer session resulted in a formal application requesting a “Skilled Companion Dog” for Courtney. It may be a while, but Courtney has a new best friend in her future.
Mike’s story is one of many regarding the additional rewards A Touch of Understanding offers as individuals with disabilities are able to reach out to others and share their experiences, both challenges and successes.
A Rare Chance to Share
We had just finished our last presentation to fourth grade students at Penryn Elementary School. The ATOU team was beginning to pack up and load the van. Steven (named changed), a fourth grade boy, came up to me to talk to me privately. He said, “You know how you talked about your aunt? (referring to my family member with developmental disabilities). Well, I have a cousin like that. She’s seven, but she can’t talk yet. I don’t usually like to hang around my younger cousins, but she’s different.”
I asked if he liked spending time with her. With a smile that was a cross between pride and self-consciousness, he replied, “Yes.” I told him she was lucky to have him for a cousin and he was lucky to have her. I also told him I hoped he had as wonderful a friendship with her as I do with my aunt. He thanked me, smiled and walked away, following his classmates.
A Touch of Understanding offers a time for students with disabled family members to share their experiences, their concerns and their appreciation of their loved ones. It is a rare time to talk with pride about their knowledge and understanding of disabilities rather than being embarrassed or hiding the fact that their family has a disabled member. The program takes away the stigma and lets the students see that individuals with disabilities are people first, just regular people, who happen to have disabilities.
A Touch of Understanding, through its hands-on activities and opportunities to meet and talk with individuals with disabilities, breaks down barriers and strengthens relationships.
A Little Girl Joins the ATOU Team
Occasionally we have the privilege of meeting a child who so clearly and obviously takes hold of the opportunity A Touch of Understanding offers and “runs with it.” This time it was Emily (name changed), a little eight year old girl in a second grade classroom in Placer County.
It was during the demonstration portion of our activity period, when I explained the adaptive equipment: artificial arms and legs, Braille slates and styluses, wheelchairs, crutches, canes and walkers. Emily had come into the room using her walker, so I asked if she would like to share anything with her class. I wish you could have seen her shy smile as she proudly struggled to stand (all 3′ of her) in front of 40 of her peers.
She began in a tiny voice to tell of her complicated birth; the wonderful doctors; her therapy three times a week; how lucky she is; and how, one day, if she works hard enough, she will walk without her walker. I asked if she would like to answer questions from the children. She then assumed the “teacher” role, calling on each child by name and answering their many thoughtful questions.
A transformation occurred on the playground the following week. Although the students in Emily’s classroom understood her challenges and necessary accommodations, the children from the other classes did not. Lunchtime and recess had been difficult. Teachers reported that following A Touch of Understanding, they saw something they had never seen before. Emily was in line to play tetherball. (Teatherball is of utmost importance to the children at this school.) The teachers watched to see what would happen. Emily stood with her walker, inching up as each child before her finished his/her turn. When it came time for Emily to approach the pole, she walked up, knelt down, and pushed her walker away. Her opponent, walked up and without quesiton, knelt down and began to play. No questions asked, no problems from the opponent or the children waiting in line for their turn. Emily, who had been on the outside, was now “in.”
Emily joined our ATOU team for that day to educate her peers. They were able to use equipment that previously had frightened them and to talk with and question people who use this equipment daily. Those students learned to look beyond the disability and see the person, this time that person was a little eight year old girl named Emily.
A High School Student
A nine-year old boy with cerebral palsy sat in his wheelchair alone outside a classroom door. Unable to speak, unable to move, he waited. He waited for minutes, for hours. He had been removed from his classroom by his teacher. His infraction? Disrupting the class with his drooling. His fellow classmates helped him by wiping his chin. His teacher found this distracting. She removed him. This boy is now a sophomore in a Placer County high school.
His mother had tears in her eyes when I told her that I would try to arrange A Touch of Understanding presentation at his school. Through the years, she had spoken to his classmates, talked with his teachers, pleaded with administrators. “Take time to get to know my son. Don’t just see his disability.” But her efforts had been disappointing and frustrating.
This time would be different. We invited this boy and his parents to join us as part of the ATOU team the day we visited his school. Instead of being seen as a crippled body being wheeled around campus, this young man became part of a team of accomplished individuals, who happen to have disabilities.
Mike, who lost both hands in a race car accident, told the students of regularly flying aerobatic planes using his two myoelectric hands. Another volunteer spoke of her school years, career in journalism and raising her family while dealing with the challenges of epilepsy. Along with these volunteers, this young boy and his family told of his abilities, interests, goals and sense of humor. Rather than appearing as parents asking for special consideration for their son’s limitations, they were a family telling of their challenges, accomplishments, joys and hope.
During the question and answer period that followed, one student, surprised by what she heard, said, “You mean he can understand us?” (This made me wonder what unkind words he had heard spoken by classmates who thought he did not understand.)
The hands-on learning experiences of the activity centers (wheelchairs, artificial limbs, braces, crutches, canes, walkers, Braille, and mirror-writing) combined with the interaction with other speakers changed the attitudes of these high school students.
With A Touch of Understanding providing the platform, this young man became a “real person” to his schoolmates.