Blind World Magazine

Learning compassion.

January 26, 2006.
San Diego Union Tribune - United States.

DEL MAR Many of the students at Del Mar Heights Elementary performed their lessons blindfolded yesterday.

From sorting clothes by color and getting dressed to traversing an obstacle course with objects found in any living room, students gained a sense of what it might be like to do the most basic tasks in life without sight.

The children also discovered the wide range of visual impairments, from a loss of peripheral vision to total blindness.

"I always just thought you were blind or you could see," sixth-grader Forest Donovan said.

The lessons were part of a new, monthlong program that raises awareness about disabilities by having students simulate what it's like to have sight or hearing problems.

The program, "Understanding Differences," was spearheaded by parent and neurologist Jennifer Friedman, who wanted to teach students compassion when dealing with others who have disabilities. The program has many components: science experiments, classroom lessons and discussions, simulation exercises and guest speakers who have disabilities.

"We wanted to address a segment of our population that is sometimes frightening to us," Principal Wendy Wardlow said. "I think children and parents can be very put off by people who are in wheelchairs or people who are blind. We don't want our children to avoid them, but to instead develop a sense of familiarity."

About 10 percent of the 450 students at Del Mar Heights are in special education.

The program, which varies by grade level, began with introductory lessons and science experiments about the human body's capabilities for vision, hearing, motor coordination and perception.

To experiment with depth perception, students tossed a ball to one another with one eye blindfolded.

By rubbing the handles of a bowl and creating vibrations, they generated a ringing sound that taught them how sound travels, Friedman said.

In one task, students watching a video were asked to count the number of times the basketball players in white shirts tossed a ball. The viewers concentrated so hard on the tosses, Friedman said, that 90 percent were surprised to learn that a gorilla walked into the middle of the game and did a little dance.

"Perception varies and focusing on one thing can cause us to miss certain other things," Friedman said.

Wardlow said the science lessons were critical to giving the program depth.

Then came the guest speakers, who included blind representatives from the Braille Institute, a man from Nigeria who lost the use of his legs because of polio, and a young man who had bone cancer and lost a leg.

Students weren't shy about asking personal questions that adults might wonder about but never ask, Wardlow said, such as how blind people find the toilet in a restroom.

This week featured simulation days, during which students wander from station to station experiencing firsthand what it's like to be without vision, hearing or motor coordination.

One parent volunteer, a molecular biologist for the Salk Institute, broadcast sounds that mimicked what a hearing-impaired person would perceive, such as a man's voice in a muffled tone or drowned out by other noise.

Students checked out a telephone designed for the hearing-impaired that uses typed dialogue and flashing lights instead of a ringer.

"I wonder how deaf people hear what a teacher is saying during a spelling test," second-grader Cameron Chang said.

The students learned sign language for such things as "I need to go to the bathroom" and "I'm hungry."

The simulations using blindfolds frustrated some students.

"Whoa, that was, like, scary," said sixth-grader Andrea Taylor, after stumbling through an obstacle course with stairs, a plant holder, a bench and a teddy bear carelessly tossed on the ground to thwart her progress. "You have no clue where things are."

Sixth-grader Bryce Casper, who struggled to dress himself, only to end up with his shirt backward and inside out, remarked, "What I don't get is how do you know what color you're putting on?"

Reflective writing assignments will conclude the program. Many students report a newfound respect for the challenges that disabled people face.

"I think it must be hard for a blind person if they're standing next to someone who says, "What a beautiful rainbow,' and they can't see it," Andrea said.

Sixth-grader Brooke Tencer said she learned to think of disabled individuals as people first.

Principal Wardlow said the program has taught students about their similarities and differences in a way that cultivates tolerance.

"We call this program 'Understanding Differences,' but we also want kids to know that people are probably more alike then different," she said. "We all have strengths, and we all have things we can help each other with. And our similarities are probably as important as our differences."

Sherry Saavedra: (760) 476-8238;

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