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Putting themselves in disabled peoples' shoes

By: Lauren Weber, The Placer Herald
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The students of Breen Elementary in Rocklin got to see things through the eyes of someone living with a disability – literally. This month, the Granite Bay-based nonprofit A Touch of Understanding has been visiting the campus and meeting with fourth- fifth- and sixth-graders and giving them a glimpse into what life would be like with a disability. The sixth-grade students became wheelchair-bound, blind and struggled with mental disorders such as autism, for about an hour Friday with hands-on demonstrations supervised by the volunteers. Sixth-graders Ashley Kleczek and Jocylyn Patel said they both know people with disabilities, but learned what it’s like for them with the TOU program. “I learned way more than I knew,” Kleczek said. The two, along with their class, had the opportunity to sit, move and turn in a wheelchair, which they said stood out among the other activities. Through it, they said they’ve changed the way they will look at others with disabilities, which is what the program is all about. Leslie DeDora, the founder of A Touch of Understanding said she hopes students don’t just learn to tolerate people with disabilities, but instead appreciate the differences. “They don’t just experience it, they take something from it,” DeDora said. “I would hope that they would break down the barriers of us and them – kids with disabilities.” At one of the stations, students experienced what it’s like for some people with autism and learning disabilities. A set of headphones let students hear the loud noises that might be heard by someone with autism. An uncomfortable glove let students feel what some kids endure on a daily basis. And an activity of writing by looking through a mirror instead of down at the paper, showed what a struggle a learning disability can be. DeDora said because of the hands-on experiences and the personal interaction with the volunteers, people remember the impact A Touch of Understanding had on them, years later. Breen Elementary Principal Chuck Thibideau has already seen that through the students. Parents have told him, “My child really gained a lot. They couldn’t stop talking about it,” he said. Thibideau said he hopes the program brings a sense of empathy to Breen students. “I think that the impact for our kids is that they will now look at all people with emotions … not look at the disability, but more the person,” he said. In addition to activities, students listen to the inspiring stories of volunteers with disabilities – some they were born with, others the result of an accident. Whatever their disability, students were taught that people are the same, no matter their ability. “You deal with what you’ve got,” said volunteer Susie Glover. “Everybody is the same inside. Everybody has the same hopes, wishes and streams. You’ve got to be kind to everybody.” Contact Lauren Weber at laurenw@goldcountrymedia.com.