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Making a Difference : Education: Braille, hearing aids and backward sentences are some of the ways students experience disabilities.


Having trouble reading this?

If you had a learning disability, that's an example of how the words above might appear to you. You would find it very difficult to read. But that wouldn't mean you were stupid.

That's the thrust of Differences, a program in Beverly Hills schools that brings backward sentences, Braille Monopoly and hearing aids to third-graders.

The program, developed and presented by the school district's special education staff, aims to cultivate the youngsters' awareness of disabled people by letting the students experience handicaps.

At a recent session at Beverly Vista School, the third-graders plunged into a series of exercises that illustrated mental, learning, orthopedic, hearing and visual disabilities. The exercises were set up at five tables in the auditorium.

Differences are good, the program coordinators, who are called resource specialists, explained by way of introduction. What if every child had the same color of eyes and hair and "liked all the same things you liked--the same TV shows . . . and the same kind of jelly on their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?" they asked the children. Life would be pretty dull, the children agreed.

A handicap, the specialists continued, is simply "a difference which makes it harder for that person to do something that is easy for you to do." It can be as ordinary as a broken arm. And handicaps aren't contagious, they added.

"When children are blind, they like to play games just like you do," said resource specialist Linda DiNoble, as the students ran their hands over the dots of Park Place and Luxury Tax on the Braille Monopoly game.

Their hands pounced again to the nubs in a Bugs Bunny book and a Braille dictionary, and they oohed when DiNoble punched in a student's name on a Braille typewriter.

DiNoble gave them pointers on etiquette around guide dogs: Don't rush up and make a fuss over them, because "they're working. You need to just look at those from a distance."

Stewart Wiley, 8, was puzzled why blind people seem to move their heads every which way. "We think eye contact is real important--they don't," DiNoble said.

"You know how Stevie Wonder sings? He moves his head around a lot. He's feeling the rhythm of the music," she said.

There were distorted-vision glasses and a hearing aid to try on. "What?!" exclaimed Sam Taratoot, swiveling his head to see his surroundings in the new--and blurry--light. He tried to color in a baseball on a piece of paper--but was seeing two foggy baseballs.

For some people with learning disabilities, "their hand wants to go one way, but the brain says another way," explained Betsy Applebaum, a specialist.

Another of her colleagues, Linda Thaler, instructed students to try to write the numbers one through five on a piece of paper as they held the paper to their foreheads. They were startled and dismayed at their products--backwards, upside-down gobbledygook. That's what a mentally handicapped person might do, Thaler said. "They might see it the way you see it on the blackboard, but when they try to copy it, it may be real hard," she said.

At another table, it was finger calisthenics: "Wrap your thumb around," "Get the other fingers out of the way," said specialist Lindi Weinstein, leading the group through signing the alphabet and phrases such as "how are you."

Eighth-grader Bebo Saab was on hand to explain his cerebral palsy. "You guys are supposed to be in your mom's stomach 9 months. I was in my mother's stomach 6 1/2 months," he stated matter of factly. "When I was born, I had brain damage. That doesn't mean my brain went cuckoo or anything"--a few children giggled nervously--"It got paralyzed."

"Have you seen 'My Left Foot'? That guy's got cerebral palsy. Luckily, mine is not that bad," said Bebo, who takes all classes but physical education with other eighth-graders.

One girl wondered if his motorized wheelchair was anything like an amusement-park ride. "You might think it's fun, but it's my leg," Bebo replied. "I'd rather walk."

"I can eat . . . brush my hair, think, do my homework," but need help showering and going to the bathroom, he said.

"I play Nintendo, talk on the telephone, visit my friends"--who are not handicapped, Bebo said. "We like to do everything you guys like to do--go to Beverly Center, Westwood, Magic Mountain, Disneyland," he said, adding that he is lifted from his wheelchair into the rides.

And Bebo made it clear that he doesn't appreciate stares. "All you have to do is ask me questions. What do you get from staring?"

In an interview afterward, Bebo said that at the start of the school year other students tend to gawk at him, and he is usually the one to break the ice. "In the course of the school year, it (the interaction between him and his classmates) becomes normal."

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