A poster with the phrase, “We’re all different, but as a team we fit together,” could be seen at the front of the multi-purpose room at Highlands Elementary School on Wednesday.
That simple message encapsulates what the leaders of the second annual Inclusion Week wanted students to understand following the activities they did throughout the week.
“We think it’s important to just make sure everyone feels included and know that everybody faces different challenges in life,” Amanda Bergen said.
Bergen is the mother of a third-grader in the Special Day Class at Highlands Elementary. She said that because of her daughter’s rare genetic condition, she faces different challenges in her life.
To show students what kinds of challenges people with impairments can face, three stations were set up with activities. One station focused on sensory processing, one on physical impairment and one on hearing impairment.
“We’re trying to spread awareness about different kinds of disabilities and also show the other kids that they’re more alike than different,” Silvana Fox said.
Fox and Christina Carlin are also mothers of third-graders in the Special Day Class. The three of them were the catalysts for making Inclusion Week happen last year and were excited to bring it back this year.
At the sensory processing station, Bergen asked the students if there are any food types that they don’t like, and why. One said that pork is “hard to chew” and tastes like “soft paper.” Another mentioned shrimp because of its crunch and the texture.
After finding out that some of them had the same like or dislike of different food types, the students went to a table with buckets filled with different textured items, as well as shakers with different smells. Students were asked to try to identify what the items or smells were, with some finding pleasure in doing the activities and some clearly not enjoying the smell of garlic or the feel of a slimy object.
“Some of them feel kind of gross and some of them nice,” Fox said. “So, we kind of asked them, ‘How did that make you feel? Did you like to touch that or not?’ Basically, trying to show them what it’s like for a person who has that condition to kind of have anxiety or feels grossed out or has a hard time even touching certain things.”
At the hearing impairment station, Carlin taught the students how to sign the Pledge of Allegiance in American Sign Language. She first showed the students how mouthing certain words without sound can be difficult to ascertain, so people hard of hearing need to be able to use ASL to communicate effectively.
Carlin said she was shocked at how many of the students not only knew some ASL going into the activity, but also were able to pick up the entire pledge by the end.
“It was great,” Carlin said. “It makes me want to cry thinking about how great the students are here and how engaged they are.”
Bergen led the physical impairment station where students tried to complete everyday tasks — but only with their non-dominant hand.
Students were asked to try things such as zipping something up, drawing an object or opening a jar. Many students said these tasks were difficult to complete, while others said that snapping something shut was easier to do with one hand.
“It’s funny because I think that kids definitely find ways to make it work,” Bergen said. “So, there’s a jar and they have to unscrew the lid and they’re holding it between their legs, but I think they definitely find it difficult. And that’s created a really good discussion with the students around how it’s important to be kind because everybody struggles with different things and everybody might have different needs, whether they have a diagnosed disability or not.”
Sixth-grader Caleb Leavitt said that he enjoyed this station because of the challenge that it presented.
“The station where you’re trying to do things with your least-dominant hand,” Leavitt said when asked what his favorite station was. “It’s kind of like finding out what’s easier and what’s harder.”
Students didn’t just learn what impairments can feel like; they also learned how people with impairments combat the issues that they face, especially when it comes to sensory impairment. Fox mentioned sound-reducing headphones for people who are sensitive to loud sounds and weighted blankets for people who need to feel pressed down when they sleep.
As this is the second year that Inclusion Week has been held at Highlands Elementary, Fox said that some students remembered what they had learned last year. She said she was impressed with how the students are able to process the idea of impairments so quickly.
“I actually asked if they remember last time we did it, and some did,” Fox said. “The little ones, they really look forward to the activities, but at the upper grades, they really are engaged and I think they have learned a lot.”
The three mothers all have three more years left at Highlands Elementary after this one. Carlin said she plans on doing the event again all three years, and beyond if she can.
“We would love to. Amanda and I have talked about it,” Carlin said. “My husband has told us that we should make this a program and bring it to schools everywhere. So, maybe in the future.”