Rachel Deckelbaum admits that she used to be intimidate by disabled people.
"I thought they'd be mean," says the 8-year-old third-grader. "I was scared of them."
But, after Disability Awareness Day at Fort Garrison Elementary School, Rachel reports she learned something about handicapped people that she didn't know before.
"They're the same as us," she said. "They are really nice human beings."
More than 20 speakers, with disabilities ranging from paralysis to blindness to epilepsy, attended yesterday's program to talk with students, answer their questions, and focus on the abilities rather than the disabilities of the disabled.
"One of our goals is to make children aware of people that are different than themselves, whether it's from different cultures or people with handicaps," said Ann Glazer, principal.
"We felt that this is the real world, and we wanted them to be aware of it."
Janis Holler, an English teacher at Cockeysville Middle School, shared a similar goal Wednesday when she arranged for 10 of her sixth-grade students to read stories they wrote to 10 students from the Towson Ridge School/Ruxton Center, a special education center.
"I wanted them to learn that the world is made up of all different kinds of people," Holler said.
About 11,000 of Baltimore County's 84,000 schoolchildren have some sort of disability, according to Gloria Engnoth, coordinator for the Office of Special Education for Baltimore County schools. About 9,600 of those students attend regular schools.
Though many children at both schools said they had a relative or friend who had a disability, some admitted they weren't quite sure what to expect from their disabled visitors.
"I haven't been with kids like this before," said Cockeysville's Kevin Becraft, 12. "But they're really pretty normal. They know a lot of things."
"I didn't know how I was going to do, and how everything was going to be," said Sofia Lyford-Picke, 11. "But the kids from Ridge School are really nice."
At Fort Garrison, children had the opportunity throughout the day to experience what it was like to engage in some familiar activities with some not-so-familiar disabilities.
Playing basketball from a wheelchair or playing softball blindfolded gave kids a new perspective on what it's like to be disabled.
"It was sort of scary because you didn't know if you were going to bump into a tree or something," said Michelle Sack, 8, after playing Beep Ball, a softball game for blind people.
"It was an experience. When you had the blindfold on, you could really tell what it was like to be blind," she said.
"It's pretty hard to steer and throw the ball," said Lauri Gann, 9, after playing wheelchair basketball.
"In the beginning, it was fun -- like bumper cars," said Mollye Mikula, 8. "But I couldn't imagine people sitting in there all the time."
Children at both schools seemed to have little difficulty finding similarities between themselves and their disabled visitors.
Michael Silverman, 7, said he learned not to make fun of people who are different, because "they're the same as you. If you were handicapped you wouldn't want another person making fun of you."
Cockeysville's Kevin said he was surprised to find that Ridge students "like a lot of the things I like, like sports and video games."
"Before today, I would be scared to go up to a disabled person and say 'hi'," said Fort Garrison third-grader Jennifer Abel, 9. "Now I wouldn't. Because I know that they're a real person inside."