Howard County pupils who encounter speakers from the disABILITY AWARENESS project (dAp) receive lessons in tolerance, perseverance and compassion - in addition to reading, writing and math.
An awareness program that challenges attitudes and stereotypes, dAp has a bank of speakers - some with visible disabilities, others with hidden ones - who visit county schools and share life experiences. Service dogs trained to assist people with disabilities attend from Fidos for Freedom Inc., a nonprofit organization.
The objective is to have participants see people first, disabilities second, said Anne Wade, coordinator of the project. The lesson plan aims to sensitize children and adults to the needs and capabilities of disabled people, using humor, stories, demonstrations and fun.
"We want to bring up a new generation of kids who are comfortable around people with disabilities," Wade said.
Wade started dAp in 1979. Since then, it has become a countywide program that serves about 10,000 children at 20 schools a year.
Talbott Springs Elementary in Columbia held its "dAp Day" on Nov. 17, part of a tradition spanning more than a decade. Pupils and staff members regard the guests as friends and anticipate their visits.
"It is one of the most fulfilling days that we have," said Carrye Jones, Gifted and Talented Program teacher and school event coordinator.
"It is one of the most moving experiences that kids can go through here at school," said Yvonne V. Gordon, the school's counselor.
Lucky and Barbara Harris are old friends at Talbott Springs. Married almost 12 years, they both have cerebral palsy. The children were filled with questions: What do you like to eat? What are your favorite sports? Are your friends like you?
The couple patiently answered each question. Lucky Harris said he likes to eat everything, while his wife said she can't eat spicy food. They love Broadway musicals, sports and music. The subtle message: We are just like you.
Barbara Harris' Special Olympics medals (two state and eight county) were displayed to exclamations of "Wow" and "Ooh." When asked for one of her medals, she responded, "You want one, you have to earn it."
Noise from the gym echoed through the school as Bill Demby, competitor in several international paralympics, played basketball from a wheelchair with a group of teachers, also in wheelchairs. The cheers and chants were deafening as the pupils shouted at their teachers, who struggled to pass, shoot and maneuver the chairs.
"Its harder than you think. You have to make sure both of your arms are even," remarked Beth E. Miller to fellow teachers.
When the children got their turn to race, their faces were studies in concentration: some with teeth gritted, some with tongues out, as they tried to steer their chairs. Some went in circles, a few collided, but a couple caught on and sprinted down the court. Fourth-grader Diontrea Johnson was happy to see that athletes who are disabled could play and not be left out. Nearby, fourth-grader Brooks Cornish said, "You shouldn't laugh at other people because of what they look like."
Demby reminded the children that people in wheelchairs have to get in the chair in the morning. "We want you to understand there is a life after you become disabled," he said, addressing the group before the fun began.
Emily Rader and her mother, LaDonna, spoke about how being disabled doesn't prevent a person from being intelligent. "It doesn't mean the person is stupid or a dummy," LaDonna Rader said. "They just learn differently."
Emily was told she wasn't college material because of her learning disabilities and epilepsy. But she told her mother she was going to college, graduating from Mount Hebron High with a 3.0 average. She now attends Howard Community College. The elder Rader told the children, "If you believe in yourself, other people will believe in you. Don't let anyone take your dreams away."
Jones said a common misconception among children is that disabilities can be contagious, and that they're obvious. Fifth-grader Jeremey Butler said he "learned that you don't have to look like you have a disability to have one."
And "dAp Day" breaks down prejudice, which stems from fear and lack of exposure, Jones said. "The main thing our students learn is that all of us are more alike than different."