Mya came to Bannon Elementary School walking just fine, but within hours, she was in a wheelchair – and learning lots.
The 9-year-old and her classmates also got to scrape the sidewalk with a white cane, and trace Braille letters with their fingertips, and examine a variety of prosthetic arms, hands and legs.
The fourth-graders held an artificial eye, listened through earphones to noises that distract autistic children, and asked questions of adult volunteers who live with physical problems ranging from blindness to Multiple Sclerosis to Parkinson’s Disease.
“A Touch of Understanding,” a Granite Bay-based nonprofit group, spent nearly three hours at Bannon Creek urging students to hear, touch, hold, feel and experience what people with disabilities deal with every day. The program also visited Heron School recently.
“It’s really an anti-bullying message,” Principal Amreek Singh said. “We hope they come away feeling, ‘I’m going to be more empathetic toward my fellow human beings. I’m going to be more understanding.’”
The program proved that a disability doesn’t necessarily render someone disabled or indisposed. A blind person can gauge distance through sound, for example. A person who can’t walk can travel miles in a wheelchair. A person with no hand can pick up items using a prosthetic device.
Pam Gehrts, a volunteer for the program, told Bannon Creek fourth-graders of hurtful comments about her struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. “Everyone is responsible for how we treat other people,” she said. “They didn’t know that they hurt my feelings, but they did.”
Awkward moments sparked valuable learning lessons. Karen Parsegian, who is blind, let the class pass around one of her assistance devices to examine it, student by student. Later, she asked one of boy students where her device lay at that very moment inside the classroom. He jumped at the chance to help, standing up and pointing eagerly, “Over there!” Oops. He forgot that she couldn’t see it.
Parsegian said she can live without sight, but not without humor. “Other than being short, fat, blind and ornery, there’s not a thing wrong with me,” she quipped.
Question-and-answer sessions were no-holds-barred.
“Is it hard to put in your eye?” one student asked Parsegian.
“When you see, is it all black?”
“Do you like living your life like that?”
Afterward, the Bannon Creek fourth-graders gave “A Touch of Understanding” high marks.
“I learned that people with disabilities learn how to do stuff without anybody helping them,” said Anastasia, 10.
“I think it’s very cruel to laugh at someone with disabilities,” added Mya.