Giving disabled practice in the real world

Students learn life skills, self-esteem at work sites

Anne Arundel

April 24, 2003|By Kory Dodd | Kory Dodd,SUN STAFF

Little eyes watched intently as Joseph Sanderson began measuring the amount of trash the third-grade class had left from its last lunch at Arlington ECHO Outdoor Education Center's cafeteria.

Although he can't move his malformed hands, he lifted a small trash bucket with his arms and placed it on a small scale. He checked the scale and quietly announced the results. Minutes later, a smile lighted up his thin face as the class yelled, "Thank you" in unison.

"He's really very good," said Stephen G. Barry, the center's coordinator of outdoor and environmental education as he watched Sanderson wheel away the metal cart holding the scale and the trash. Barry said he is constantly amazed by what Sanderson can do in spite of his physical and mental disabilities.

Sanderson, 19, is one of several mentally and physically disabled students from Old Mill High School who have been volunteering at the Anne Arundel County center since fall.

Four students from Ruth Parker Eason School also work at the center, which is along the Severn River and is run by the school system. The students visit the center three days a week as part of a vocational training program for their classes in functional life skills.

The program gives the students work experience in the community at places such as Sam's Club, other stores and restaurants. Working at the center has also increased their self-esteem and helped them feel more comfortable in social situations.

"We want to give the kids as many job experiences as we can across a wide range," said Peter Judd, a special education teacher who supervises the high school boys. "This is training for the real world."

Because many of the local businesses underestimate the students' capabilities, Judd said, it's difficult to find community sites where the students can work. Some businesses are uncomfortable taking them on because of their disabilities, said Susie Collins, the center's program assistant.

When Barry learned of the shortage, he decided to invite the students to work at the center. He invited them mainly because he wanted to help them, he said, but they surprised him by becoming an invaluable asset. Not only have they provided the center with much-needed maintenance, but they also have inspired the staff.

The program's goal is to place the students in paid employment once they demonstrate their ability to follow instructions, work with others and behave in a work environment, Judd said.

Sanderson achieved those goals while at the center, so Barry decided to hire him three weeks ago. Sanderson, who lives at a home for disabled adults, works about 20 hours a week.

"When we first hired him, I felt we were taking a risk but that he needed a break," Barry said. "But he made us believers."

Sanderson has numerous physical and mental disabilities. Besides his immobile hands, he cannot raise his arms above his shoulders and walks with a slow limp because of problems with his legs.

Still, Sanderson has become an exemplary worker, performing the same tasks as the students who are not disabled, such as shoveling dirt, raking leaves and washing dishes in the cafeteria.

"He comes in every day and picks everybody up here," Barry said. "With all of his handicaps, he finds a way to get the job done."

Members of the kitchen staff said that although he jokes with them, he is a mature young man who gets the job done.

Barry said Sanderson finds ways around his disability. For example, Sanderson is responsible for washing dishes, which requires lifting the top of a chimney-shaped dishwasher high into the air to remove cleaned items. Instead of having someone else lift it for him, he found that if he lifts it a little with his arms and then leans down and uses his shoulder, he can raise it the rest of the way.

Working at the center not only improves the students' skills, but it also serves as "a wonderful social activity for our kids," said Kathy Shewbridge, a teaching assistant for the program's Ruth Parker Eason students.

By working with the center's staff and helping students who are not disabled, Shewbridge said, her students become more comfortable in social settings.

George Wright, 16, one of the Old Mill students, said that when he first came to the center he was "nervous because I'm afraid ... the kids are going to make fun of me." The students without disabilities at his school often tease his friends in the program, Wright said.

Barry said Sanderson has come to work upset because students at his school have teased him, but that being at the center lifts his spirits. The elementary school students who visit the center are accepting of the program's students, Collins said.

Shewbridge said that while the program's students gain a sense of acceptance, the children who visit the center become "aware our students are capable and not to be afraid."

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