Hi. I’m Walking Bob, and I have the distinct advantage of being able to walk comfortably to get around Davis. Not everyone is that fortunate. Helping children to value and have positive interactions with those with disabilities is at the heart of “A Touch of Understanding, (ATOU)” the program that came to Birch Lane School on September 29.
A Touch of Understanding was created by Leslie Dedora, shown below, and her father Ed Ennis, fifteen years ago in Granite Bay. The program has slowly evolved and grown until they have now worked with over 45,000 students, doing over 100 interactive presentations a year. The three-hour program includes presentations by adults and young people with disabilities as well as interactive activities that help students experience what it would be like to be blind, to be unable to speak, to need a wheelchair, to speak using a computer, or to have a learning disability.
The presentation last month was the first time the program came to Birch Lane. All of the fourth graders had opportunities to learn about disabilities from people like Mike Penketh, who lost both arms when he crashed at 300 miles per hour on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Mike has two unique prosthetic arms that he can control with his mind and muscles, but students learned they could also control the unit with their own hands. Mike, who is still a licensed pilot, is one of the seventy-five volunteers who make this program possible.
Students learned about tools they might use to function if they were blind. They created messages in Braille at a station set up to discuss how blind people can read and send messages with raised dots on cards. They met two service dogs who are well trained to assist people with disabilities. Students also experienced trying to walk using a cane to “see” obstacles and stay on the path before them. Volunteers were there to be sure they didn’t stray far from the sidewalk or have trouble with piles of leaves.
At another station, the fourth graders learned how to get around in a wheelchair, including learning how to put on and take off the brakes, where to put their hands, how to make turns and finally how to back the chair up to get it ready for the next group. They also learned some “disability” etiquette about how to interact with people in wheelchairs and people with other disabilities.
Students listened to a recording that explained the challenges that a person with autism could face and then experienced what it might be like to have a disability as they tried to trace their way around a track by looking at the track in the mirror instead of looking directly at the paper. That reversed up and down and right and left, meaning students had to reprogram themselves to be able to complete the task.
I first saw ATOU in 1998 and have seen it many times at schools across the greater Sacramento area since that time. The lasting impact occurs after the students get back to class and think and talk about what they learned. One student said, “It shows kids that people are more alike and teasing and bullying are only caused by lack of understanding.” Another put it even more simply, “I get it. You want us to be buddies, not bullies.” Sounds like we could all use A Touch of Understanding.