Outreach program teaches disabilities awareness

Would you rather have surgery every month or an injection every day? Be 10 feet tall or 2 feet tall? Only be able to whisper or only be able to shout?

These are some of the questions posed to Ithaca middle school students as part of a disability awareness program developed by senior lecturer of communication Kathy Berggren and three Cornell undergraduates.

The four-part “Illuminating Differently Abled Awareness” curriculum – delivered in short sessions over four days, or as part of one intensive course – strives to spark conversations about disability and inclusion, enhance knowledge about specific disabilities and address stereotypes. Ultimately its goal is to shift negative perceptions toward acceptance and respect.

Berggren said the “Would you rather?” activity elicited a surprisingly rich dialogue when it was presented to an eighth-grade health class at DeWitt Middle School.

“Students really began to empathize with the difficulty of having a disability,” she said.

In another activity, students were selected to play the role of a celebrity and their peers were challenged to guess their identity by asking questions. Once the celebrity’s identity was revealed, so was their disability. Tom Cruise, for instance, was revealed to have dyslexia.

“The goal is for students to learn to associate a person with his or her work and accomplishments, rather than their disability,” said Michael Iadevaia ’16, who worked on the project along with Shane Dunau ’13 and Ryan Woolley ’14.

As part of a group project, participants researched a specific disability – such as blindness, cerebral palsy or epilepsy – then took on the role of a person who interacts with a student with that disability. They were asked to reflect on what it would be like to be the student’s parent, teacher, friend or acquaintance, and to make a presentation about what they would like others to know about the student’s disability and how the class could improve the student’s school experience.

“People with disabilities often need an entire caring community for support,” Berggren said. “This was a great way to increase their knowledge about specific disabilities and learn to be advocates for others.”

Berggren said the curriculum was developed as a tool for educators, leaders and facilitators in school systems, camps, scout troops or any groups dealing with children and young adults. After a successful pilot launch, the curriculum has been made available online. Berggren and Iadevaia will be presenting it at a national education conference in April and will spend next semester evaluating user feedback.

The program was developed as part of an Engaged Learning + Research Fellowship, designed to advance academic service learning, community-based research and public scholarship.

Stacey Shackford is staff writer at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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