By Dawn Hatfield
NEW MADISON — Friday, Nov. 18, marked the start of the second annual Disabilities Awareness Days at Tri-Village Elementary. Principal Shane Mead credited Jessie Henry, Tri-Village’s Speech-Language Therapist through Darke Co. ESC, for spearheading the two-day event. The highlight for students was certainly attending small breakout sessions where individuals from Darke DD shared their personal stories and welcomed students’ questions. Additionally, students rotated through special activity stations designed to help them experience a few moments of what it may feel like to live with a disability.
Henry said after last year’s inaugural event, students wanted more time to interact with the visitors from Darke DD. Teachers reported students had questions and were very excited to find similarities with their guests, such as loving common sports teams or sharing the same hobbies. This year, it was important to allow students that extra time. A programming change allowed for sessions with Anthony “Tony” Perretta, Chas Floyd, and Katie Gilpin, who all did a wonderful job connecting with the students. Henry explained, “It’s so impactful—students create that connection and won’t be afraid to say ‘hi’ when they see them out in the community.”
Darke DD Community Connections Coordinator Sue Huston introduced the guests in a caring and straightforward way. Her ability to show respect and compassion while speaking very matter-of-factly about individuals’ challenges demonstrated excellent modeling for the students. This encouraged them to speak freely and ask their genuine questions. Providing this interaction, this safe space for real communication, certainly broke down barriers and took a lot of the guesswork out of talking with individuals who have disabilities.
Students learned that while Perretta has cerebral palsy and sometimes uses a wheelchair, he is also a huge Buckeyes fan, loves playing video games and swimming, and often listens to his favorite band, AC/DC.
They met Floyd whose cerebral palsy symptoms affect mostly her left side and discovered she is married, has a son, and is starting new job training next week.
Gilpin, a 2016 Tri-Village graduate, shared a story of “rough times” in her previous schools, which led her to attend T-V. After being welcomed by both staff and fellow students, Gilpin said she knew she had found her place, stating, “I’m a Patriot through and through.” An avid singer, Gilpin then took song requests and astounded the students with her incredible talent, including a rendition of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” that got all the kids involved!
Huston emphasized the importance of “kindness, acceptance, and inclusion,” highlighting the ways in which we are all different from one another—glasses, no glasses; tall, short; long hair, short hairstyle. Huston encouraged students to realize that even one person can make a difference. “A simple kind word, high five, fist bump, or ‘hi,’ can make all the difference in the world to someone,” concluded Huston.
Inside the gymnasium, students rotated through several stations meant to give them first-hand experience with various developmental challenges. A station focusing on dyslexia was a new addition this year, allowing students to see a version of text similarly to how a person with dyslexia may view it. They were able to experience the struggle of reading letters that seem mirrored or rotated and recognized how much effort it can take to decipher.
Another station challenged students to assemble simple puzzles while wearing blindfolds, helping them experience what it feels like to manage tasks without the sense of sight. Similarly, students put gloves or socks over their hands to experience the difficulty of completing tasks when fine-motor control is limited. A communication disorder station paired students with a partner who would draw a simple but abstract shape by their oral instructions only, not by looking. Students quickly found how difficult it can be to communicate effectively when we take certain aspects for granted.
Henry, who has worked at Tri-Village long enough to see her first class of kindergartners become seniors, is very dedicated to her work and to this event. Henry explained Tri-Village has three MD classrooms. She said, not only is this an asset to typical students, but Disabilities Awareness Days also helps students with disabilities make connections and learn about resources available to them.
Contact Daily Advocate Reporter Dawn Hatfield at [email protected] or 937-569-0066.