Disabled give life lessons


Spinning the wheels back and forth with her tired hands, Aleasha Nisbeth crossed the finish line first while her classmates, also in wheelchairs, trailed behind her. Moving around in a wheelchair wasn't as easy as Aleasha thought.

"We couldn't move our legs, and that's how it is," said Aleasha, 11.

Aleasha was one of hundreds of students at Ellicott Mills Middle School who got a glimpse of life in a wheelchair as part of a disability awareness program called "dAp Day."

The daylong program at the Ellicott City school Friday also featured dozens of speakers on physical and cognitive disabilities, including autism, mental retardation, brain injuries, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis.

The awareness day was part of a yearlong focus to promote the idea that all children can learn together, said Debra O'Byrne, the assistant principal at Ellicott Mills. Of the 582 pupils at the school, about 12 percent receive special-education services.

"We're trying to teach children that we're a community of one," O'Byrne said. "It's important that students value commonality and diversity."

To that end, the school system's special-education department sponsors dAp Days at various schools throughout the year as part of broader efforts to promote disability awareness and provide resources for disabled students to learn with their nondisabled peers, school officials said. The program at Ellicott Mills was the fourth this year.

"More and more students with disabilities are being included in our regular comprehensive schools and with that, there needs to be an understanding of differences," said Tracey Parent, the school system's resource teacher for dAp. "Our goal is to break down stereotypes, barriers, misunderstanding, ignorance."

Instead of regular classes Friday, Ellicott Mills students spent the day learning about disabilities and finding out what life is like for disabled children and adults.

Megan Fox and Tiffany Sasaki, both 11, talked to Joe Singleton, a paraplegic who lives in Columbia, about the spinal cord injury he suffered in an accident nearly 30 years ago. Singleton, a Vietnam veteran, showed Tiffany where he was injured by pointing to the middle of her back.

"I felt sad because I haven't seen a lot of people with that kind of disability, but proud that instead of worrying about what happened, he has fun with basketball," Tiffany said.

The two girls excitedly watched Singleton and Billy Demby, a bilateral amputee who uses a wheelchair to play sports, in a competition against their teachers in a 5-vs.-2 basketball tournament. While Singleton and Demby skillfully maneuvered around the gymnasium dribbling a basketball, the teachers struggled to get used to their new mode of transportation.

"I think Joe's team's going to win," Megan predicted.

Indeed, it was an easy win for the two men. The score: 11-6.

The excitement in the gym continued as Demby invited the youngsters to wheelchair races. Demby, who was injured in Vietnam when a rocket hit the vehicle in which he was riding, said programs such as dAp help close the cultural gap between disabled and nondisabled children.

"If these kids can get used to us, they can get used to students like us," he said.

At one session, sixth-graders learned about their classmate, Nathan Cervelloni, with the help of his mother, Amy. Nathan has apraxia, which affects language and speech, and other fine-motor challenges.

Amy Cervelloni asked the pupils to imagine their lives without the ability to talk because the muscles around their mouths were too weak and thoughts in their brains were mixed up. She offered suggestions on how they could help Nathan, including encouraging him to talk, asking yes or no questions and being persistent until he answers.

"I want them to understand," Cervelloni said after her first presentation. "You don't know what to do if you don't understand. I wanted them to know how it's like to not talk, feel isolated. It's hard when you put yourself in his shoes."

At another session, Edward Thompson, 67, of Clarksville, presented a show-and-tell on his prosthetic right leg. His leg was amputated nine years ago because of a blood clot. He pulled off the prosthetic leg to show the pupils how it fits.

The students peppered him with questions, including whether the prosthetic leg is comfortable (most of the time except when it gets hot in the summer) and whether he walks with a limp (he can walk without a limp but has to work hard at it).

"Even if your leg is amputated, that's no reason to give up life," said Thompson, who told stories of his numerous cross-country trips, learning how to drive smoothly with his prosthetic leg and his gigs as a mall Santa Claus.

Pupils said the daylong program was fun and enlightening.

"Everybody can be unique in their own way, and they can learn stuff differently," said Liza Horti, 11, a sixth-grader. "When I was younger and when I saw people who were different, I was kind of scared to go up to them. But now, I know they are people, and they could be just like us but do things differently."

Sarah Painter, another sixth-grader, put it this way: "It's helping me be a better person by accepting people for who they are."

And as much as the children took away an increase awareness of disabilities, Singleton, who has been a presenter at numerous disability-awareness programs throughout the county, said he also gets much out of the events.

"It's therapy for me to be around them," he said. "When you walk around the streets, it's amazing who knows you."


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