Roughly 100 students sat criss-cross-applesauce on the cafeteria floor of Spring Mill Elementary recently for a presentation on Down Syndrome. The assembly was part of a two-week disability awareness program for young students at the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township.
“It’s important to learn that people with disabilities have the same chance as people with no disabilities,” 11-year-old Jameson said.
After the presentation, Jameson said he’s prepared to address someone who’s bullying him or someone else.
“I learned that you should stand up when somebody is putting you down,” Jameson said. “And when someone is putting you down, instead of running away, you should report it, get through it or try to stand up for yourself.”
Washington Township Schools is partnering with the Joseph Maley Foundation for Disability Awareness Month. The Indianapolis-based organization focuses on providing social emotional programming to students.
During the program, students learn about visual and auditory impairments, learning disabilities and communication differences. For example, kindergarteners learn about physical differences by reading a book about a child who doesn't have a full arm, then talk as a class about how to embrace people with unique differences. And pre-K through fourth graders watch performances featuring life-sized puppets that have different disabilities that are operated by trained eighth grade puppeteers. All students hear speeches from students and adults who have a disability that students are learning about, in order to have a better understanding of someone’s experience.
Erica Christie, director of education for Joseph Maley Foundation, said the program’s goal is to have students teach other students about disabilities in order to make children more comfortable asking questions while learning about someone who’s different from them.
“Oftentimes those speakers are young people so they're middle or high school students — so they're very relatable,” Christie said. “It's an awesome opportunity for the kids to learn, but also for the speakers. It's a really empowering thing for them to get to tell their story, to own it, to share their message with others and put them in that leadership role.”
Roughly 15 percent of the district’s students qualify for an individualized learning plan due to some type of disability, which is the same as the state’s percentage.
Ghirmay Alazar, the district’s director of student services, supports students with disabilities and multilingual learners. When addressing a student’s unique learning needs, Alazar said it’s important to focus on a student's abilities.
“What happens a lot of times, the stigma that is worldwide with disability is that [it’s] almost like they're less human, or less people or they do less,” Alazar said. “And I can give you examples after examples of successful people – actors and actresses, athletes – that have excelled with a disability.”
Expansion of the program
The Disabilities Awareness program was initially taught in 1999 at St. Monica Catholic School, and now more than 50 schools in central Indiana use the one-to-two-week program.
The Joseph Maley Foundation — which was founded to honor Joseph Maley, who was born with physical and cognitive disabilities — annually revises the program to help equip students with knowledge about disabilities so they can respectfully communicate with others.
“I think schools are realizing that, especially with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, that disability hasn't been a part of that conversation for too long,” Christie said. “And we need to do something about it. And it's exciting to have something in our community that can help schools bring this to the forefront.”
Washington Township is the first Marion County school district to have a majority of its schools participate in the program. The district plans to implement the Disabilities Awareness program in all of its classrooms next school year.