Real Experts On Disabilities Teach Youths

October 27, 1991|By Gary Lambrecht

As Larry Hughes rolls to the front of the fifth-grade classroom in his wheelchair, the chatter among the three dozen pupils ceases.

His introduction seals their attention.

"My name is Larry Hughes, and I'm disabled. I can't walk," he begins. "But my mind works. My forte is computers. I'm a world-class racer. I play basketball, I play tennis, I swim, I fish. I do everythingI want to do."

With that, the Howard County school system's Disability Awareness Project is in session.

Hughes launches into the role of math teacher, engaging the class at Pointers Run Elementary School with a lesson on binary digits. Hands shoot up around the room inresponse to his challenging questions.

After he warms up the class, Hughes segues into his personal story. He concentrates on his wheelchair racing exploits, highlighting an eight-day, 367-mile wheelchair marathon he undertook in Alaska in 1984 and 1985. Next, he invites questions. The students don't disappoint. Raised hands are everywhere.

"How did you end up in that chair?" one boy asks.

"I got shotin Vietnam," Hughes answers.

"Where did you get shot?" the boy follows up.

"My chest, back, arms," Hughes replies.

"How do you go to bed at night?" another pupil inquires.

"It's like clockwork for me," Hughes says. "I just twist myself out of the chair and crawl into bed."

Hughes answers them all. "Sometimes, the questions are really something," he says. "I've been asked how I go to the bathroom. I've been asked if I can have sex, and how much sex I get during the week."

Hughes has been answering questions for the past six years as a speaker for the Disability Awareness Project.

"After Larry first came and talked to us, we decided we weren't going to let him go," recalls Anne Wade, DAP's coordinator. "He gets a crowd with him as fast as anyone I've ever seen. He sends the kids away with something to think about."

The program began as a two-week stint with a handful of speakers at Harper's Choice Middle School in Columbia 12 years ago. It has evolved into a full-time, countywide program that employs 50 speakers, each of whom has a disability caused by birth trauma, genetic disorders, disease or accidents.

Once a week, the Disability Awareness Project visits one of the county's elementary, middle or high schools. Students, parents and teachers meet the speakers andlisten to their stories. They also learn about the issues facing thedisabled, such as the need for curb ramps and the need to be accepted into society's mainstream.

The program's goals are to foster sensitivity toward the disabled and to stress their abilities and accomplishments. It teaches children and adults to recognize the disabled as normal people while remaining aware of the physical limits imposed on them.

"When I grew up, there were never any programs like this.When you saw someone in a wheelchair, you always felt sorry for thatperson," says Carol Baker, a parent of three elementary-school children, one of whom is mentally retarded.

"But you see what disability awareness is because of programs like this," she says. "People likemy son feel much more welcome among their peers."

One way the speakers make their points is engaging their hosts in a wheelchair basketball game. At Pointers Run, the day begins with Hughes and Gordon Moye -- a professional wheelchair basketball player -- playing hoops with teachers, parents and students.

As Hughes and Moye maneuver their chairs deftly up and down the court, changing directions easily while sinking baskets from a variety of angles and distances, most of the able-bodied players struggle badly trying to control the chairs. Shooting the ball at a basket 10 feet high from a seated position proves too demanding for most of them.

"I never had the opportunity tosit in one of these chairs. It's great for the children to see how much these men can do," parent Sharon Prada says. "They project so much positive energy toward the children."

"I kind of got used to it," says Dean Stelfox, a fifth-grader who made two shots after nearly tipping over in his chair. "Playing basketball in a wheelchair is kindof fun, but if you have to stay in it your whole life, it wouldn't be much fun."

That is Moye's sobering message to the children as they begin walking out of the gym.

"Getting around in a wheelchair might be fun, but we don't wish it on anyone," says Moye, who was paralyzed from the waist down in an automobile accident five years ago. "This is our mode of transportation. We don't get up and walk away."

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