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TORRANCE : Program Aims to Teach Understanding of Disabled


Standing in front of a group of Torrance's North High School freshmen, Luis Alfaro strained to read his prepared speech. A gunshot injury a year ago prevents him from seeing the lower half of the visual field, so one of his instructors held the paper above shoulder level as he read.

He told the crowd he was shot in the head while working as a disc jockey at a friend's birthday party. The bullet went through his skull and damaged his brain.

"I was unlucky and I got in the way," Alfaro, 18, told the audience as they sat silently in the school library. "What happened to me could happen to anybody."

After the accident, he was blind and used a wheelchair. But over time he learned to walk with a leg brace and regained a portion of his vision.

Talks by Alfaro and 10 other students with disabilities--ranging from a speech impediment to cerebral palsy--are part of a two-day program to teach North's 450 freshmen how their fellow students live with disabilities.

School staff created the event 11 years ago when North became a regional education center for students with mental and physical disabilities. Nearly 10% of the 2,000 students on campus have some sort of disability.

During the first day of the program, the freshmen rotated through five stations in the library, each designed to simulate a different type of disease or physical impairment.

At one table students tried to pick up pennies and tie bows while they wore gloves with cotton balls stuffed in the fingers. The wadded cotton mimics the lack of feeling and loss of motor control experienced by people with arthritis or cerebral palsy.

Kevin Kizanis, 14, craftily looped the thread around his ankle to provide some tension while he tried to tie a bow.

"I can't do it," Kizanis said, and then looked up and asked with awe: "Can anyone ever learn to do this?"

At another spot in the library, the teen-agers tried to use their non-dominant hand to trace within the lines of a maze reflected in a mirror. The exercise simulates how people with dyslexia see and process information. The youngsters learned that Tom Cruise and Cher both have dyslexia, and need extra help to handle daily tasks and learn scripts.

Ryan Ito, 14, did better than most on the wheelchair obstacle course, but he still ran over an orange safety cone and narrowly missed a head-on collision with another racer. And he has had some practice.

Several years ago he cut his leg so severely on a jungle gym he had to use a wheelchair for weeks. Getting around inside his house was so difficult, he said, he didn't venture outside until he got crutches.

On the second day, students heard comments from 11 disabled students. Some, like Courtney Weathers, cannot speak.

Weathers has cerebral palsy. In a statement read by an instructor, Weathers told the students he needed help to eat and do schoolwork, but his words were proud when he discussed taking the bus alone and using a computer to write.

"I wish I could be like everyone else and do what everyone else does," he said. "I hurt very much inside when I can't do the things other people do. I feel trapped inside my body."

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