MEDFORD, Ore. – Hayden Allen, 9, gestured wildly as he tried to communicate instructions to his classmates without using words.

As he acted out “arranging toy cars in a row,” his classmates guessed that he was counting, dancing and even flying.

Hayden finally gave up.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“It was hard and frustrating, and I couldn’t do it very well,” he said.

Hayden and the rest of the fourth-grade class at Griffin Creek Elementary School last week participated in a series of simulations intended to teach students what it’s like to live with a disability.

The exercises are part of the Medford School District’s Ability Awareness Campaign, which was proposed by the Special Education Parent Outreach Committee.

“We call it ‘Ability Awareness,’ because we want kids to focus on the fact that we all have abilities even though we’re different,” said special education specialist Vanessa Campbell. “It’s about acceptance and awareness.”

Over the course of the next month, Campbell will visit all 14 elementary schools in the district to talk to fourth-graders about different types of disabilities and conduct simulations so they have a better understanding of the challenges facing people with disabilities.

“Some kids had judgmental preconceptions about disabilities, and I challenged them to think about them differently and not use the words ‘weird’ or ‘wrong,'” Campbell said.

The fourth-graders learned about Helen Keller, Joni Eareckson Tada and other people with disabilities, including some of their favorite celebrities – Justin Timberlake, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Orlando Bloom, who has a learning disability, and Cameron Diaz, who has obsessive compulsive disorder.

Following Campbell’s presentation at Griffin Creek Elementary, the fourth-graders participated in a variety of exercises that exposed them to some of the challenges facing people with disabilities.

At one “learning station,” the students had to tie a pair of shoes while wearing gloves so they could better understand how a person’s coordination is affected by Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy and other physical conditions.

The students also were asked to trace shapes and read letters using a mirror, write their name without using their hands, pour water while blindfolded, use a mouth stick and gestures to communicate and spell their name with Braille.

“It’s really hard to not be so frustrated and not be able to do certain things,” said Elijah Dahlstrom, 10, after attempting to write his name with a pen in his mouth. “To them (a person with a disability) pouring water, they just want to be refreshed, but it’s so frustrating because they have to do it over and over and don’t get it.”

Tania Tong, the district’s director of special education and student services, said the Ability Awareness Campaign corresponds with the district’s ongoing anti-bullying campaign and encourages the use of inclusive practices.

“The goal is to increase awareness for students, teachers and staff that everyone is unique and has talents, gifts and capacities and that they shouldn’t be judged solely by their uniqueness or challenges they face,” Tong said.

© 2016 the Mail Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.