`Promoting the ability' of the disabled to kids

Awareness: A program at Westminster Elementary helps pupils look beyond a person's physical limitations.

April 28, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Ninette LeGates read stories to children at Westminster Elementary School yesterday. Her husband showed off Trinket, the family dog that rested quietly at his feet. Their friend, Steve Dutterer, demonstrated a wristwatch that crows the hours like a rooster and tells time at the press of a button.

The stories were in Braille. Trinket, a Labrador-golden retriever mix, is a trained seeing-eye dog. The wristwatch was designed to help the blind tell time.

"In many ways, we are still the same as you," said LeGates, who, like her husband, has been blind since birth.

The visitors participated in Disability Awareness Day at the elementary school, an event that the parents multicultural committee organized to help children understand and accept differences in people. A spirited wheelchair basketball team, candid speakers on disability and life-size puppets delivered the message.

"We wanted to give the children knowledge about various disabilities," said Pat Domser, a parent volunteer. "We hope the program helps children accept anyone who is different, so that they are not afraid or mocking."

The visitors "came to bring to children an awareness of disability," said Dutterer, who was blinded by a degenerative eye disease. He recently retired as the financial officer for Westminster. "All `disability' means is that a person doesn't have the same ability as someone else."

His wife, Dorothy E. Dutterer, the school's vice principal, said she "jumped right on" the concept for Disability Awareness Day.

"People don't always know how to deal with disabled people," she said. "We have been at restaurants when the waiter asked me if my husband wanted coffee. I have to say that he is blind, not deaf."

A representative from the Maryland School for the Blind and a hearing specialist also met with the classes. Kids on the Block Puppet Theater staged skits with themes that focused on asthma, cystic fibrosis, spina bifida and Down syndrome.

"The children really identify with the puppets and become absorbed in what the puppets are saying," said puppeteer Allison Shoaf. "The skits help children see the person behind their limitations."

The day culminated in a lively game of wheelchair basketball between three members of the Maryland Ravens wheelchair team and five school staffers who volunteered to play. The teachers had practiced for several weeks before they discovered they, too, would be playing in wheelchairs and that the nets would not be lowered.

"We are gonna get slaughtered on the court," said Carol Oates, faculty player. "But I hope this teaches kids that you can overcome disability."

The volume of the cheers showed the visiting players were the overwhelming favorite with the children. The outnumbered Maryland Ravens quickly erased the 30-point advantage they had given the school team. The home team would have remained scoreless if their opponents had not given them the ball several times.

"These kids have limited exposure to disability or none at all," said Eddie Diggs, Maryland Ravens coach. "We are promoting the ability of the physically challenged and focusing on what we can do."

Luke Blum, 10, said he appreciated the sharing of personal experiences. The day gave pupils "information that is really helpful to us so that we can understand and know what it is like to deal with a disability," he said.

"Every kid should see this program, especially the younger kids," Luke said. "They might tease someone with a disability because they don't know better." Jordan Ferguson, 10, said he enjoyed his visit with Trinket.

"I never knew dogs could be trained to stop even when there is tree branch in the way," he said.

Several pupils retold stories that the LeGateses had related. Ninette LeGates opened what the children assumed was her purse to show them a computer that helps her with everything from letter writing to recipes. Gary LeGates, who teaches French and Latin at Westminster High School, described how Trinket helps him get around at school. "They are married, and they have never even seen each other," Jordan said.

Jaclynn Mehl, 11, said, "That just shows us that looks don't matter."

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