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A Learning Experience

Grade Schoolers, Disabled Students Share Worlds


The class assignment was to cook French toast--an easy enough task until you consider the chefs.

One is a 10-year-old boy who's more interested in becoming the next Kobe Bryant than Emeril Lagasse. The other is a blind, developmentally disabled 19-year-old who's afraid to touch the ingredients and howls when confronted with them.

The two were paired last week for a session of a partnership that brings students from the 54th Street Elementary School across the street to work and play with youngsters at the Foundation for the Junior Blind.

What began as a limited exercise in exposure nine years ago has become a favorite time for both the foundation youths and the 54th Street school third- through fifth-graders, who mix four times a week for several hours. The Social Integration Program, however, is not always easy.

"Aarrgh!" screamed Kevin Malloy, one of the would-be French toast cooks. Every time his fingers touched a piece of the white bread that Marc Copeland tried to hand him that morning, Kevin would turn his head and cry out, "Aarrgh!"

Holding the triangular slice of bread, Copeland, a fourth-grader at 54th Street school, sat beside Kevin looking puzzled about how to make him stop yelling. And about how they'd ever turn that bread into French toast.

Kevin is developmentally delayed and has cortical blindness--a condition that prevents the visual systems of the brain from consistently interpreting what the eyes see.

"Sometimes they react that way because it's scary to touch things they can't see," said Gaby Hernandez-Gonzalez, one of Kevin's instructors at the Foundation for the Junior Blind. Gently, she took Kevin's hand, picked up an egg and explained its qualities--cold, round, hard--to him before rubbing it against his outstretched fingers. Kevin still screamed.

Kevin is part of the foundation's special education school, an individualized learning program for 3- to 21-year-olds who are visually impaired and developmentally disabled. The students, many of whom can't speak, learn skills that allow them to function more independently in society, such as communication techniques and how to bathe, dress and feed themselves.

Mark Vrbka, director of the foundation's special education services, who started the integration program in 1993, said, "It's an opportunity for our children to interact with non-disabled kids, to be around kids who they can model their behavior after. They're not going to get that anyplace else."

The first time Sydnee Childress, 10, went to the foundation, she wasn't sure she'd be able to play much with the students there because of their disabilities.

"Then when we got here, I had more fun than I thought I was going to have," Sydnee said.

Some of her classmates won't make the trip across the street because of their fears, but those who participate tell their classmates later that they had a "good time."

Youths from the foundation also visit 54th Street school during recess once a week. Last week, an integrated group of students stood in a circle on the concrete playground and sang "If You're Happy and You Know It." As recess went on, the circle swelled with little boys and girls who joined in.

The foundation added View Park Preparatory Accelerated Charter School to the integration program last year. Fifth-graders from the charter school also work with the foundation's students a couple of hours a week.

"It's been so rewarding for our kids to work with the kids from the Foundation for the Junior Blind," said Michael Piscal, an administrator at View Park Preparatory. "The kids that they see, some of them have problems getting around. To be working with a kid like that who has an upbeat outlook to life has just given our kids a whole new outlook to life."

Many of the children in the special education school live on the foundation's eight-acre campus in the Windsor Hills area of Los Angeles as part of a residential program. The Foundation for the Junior Blind, founded in 1953 to provide recreational services for blind children, includes two residential halls, a cafeteria, a pool, basketball courts, an outdoor playground and an education center.

Although working with children who are blind and disabled can be daunting even for adults, Vrbka said the elementary school youngsters deal with them well. "They really look past their disabilities and see the kids for who they are," he said.

To start the integration program last week, Hernandez-Gonzalez formed a circle with her students and those from 54th Street school and sang their favorite songs.

Kevin, who likes "Three Blind Mice," continually called out his own name. Mikey Hill-Thompson, 15, who swung his head along with "Wheels on the Bus," opened his mouth wide and repeated the teacher's acknowledgment, "Good job," over and over. Nikolai Smith, 19, stomped, laughed and bit his shirt as the class sang "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt."

"Don't mind all the noise," Hernandez-Gonzalez said to the 54th Street students. "Sometimes that's the way the kids communicate."

At first, the fourth-graders just sat in their chairs, some with faces upturned, not singing along. But by the end of the day, they had cooked with the foundation children, played with them in a ball bin and on an air mat and served them lunch. When it came time to go back to their own school, they could hardly tear themselves away.

Brandon Stanford, 9, said he felt good spending time at the foundation because he realized that "there's other people that need more help than you."

Katheryn Cardwell, 9, said her visits to the foundation taught her how blind people discern things and how disabled people communicate. "We get to learn about other kids that are not like us because they're special," she said.

Keenan Johnson, 9, said about the blind students, "There's really nothing wrong with them. They just need some more special attention."

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