AAPS Updates

Ann Arbor students learn firsthand about living with disabilities

Parent Steve Schwartz shares his story at Eberwhite

Hear some of Steve Schwartz’s story about how he has lived with a 21-year disability and why he thinks students – and everyone– should have hope:

By Casey Hans
AAPSNews Service

A group of Eberwhite Elementary fourth-graders are a bit shy – perhaps even uncomfortable – as they approach a table in the school’s media center.

At the table sits a volunteer with a speech disability who was showing students how he communicates – with cards and various devices. Teaching them to read his lips is one of the exercises that finally encourage students to make eye contact – and relax.

The students are on their way to a better understanding, which is what Disability Awareness Workshop Days in the Ann Arbor Public Schools are all about.

The annual workshops to raise student awareness about people with disabilities are being hosted in 18 elementary schools this winter and spring, a record number, said organizers. The event is sponsored by individual schools through the Ann Arbor Parent Advisory Committee for Special Education, or AAPAC.

“We simulate these disabilities,” explained parent Erica Melnykowycz, who chairs Eberwhite’s Disability Awareness Workshop Day. “It’s OK if they feel some frustration. The hope is that they have some empathy for people with disabilities.”

At Eberwhite, multiple stations were set up around the school to give students the proper experience. Among the many activities, students had to get out of the gym using a wheelchair without assistance, use a walker with their legs tied together and, in the media center, learn how to find their way around while blindfolded. Teams of student “detectives” made their way around the school to measure for accessibility at windows, in doorways and between desks.

Eberwhite Disability Awareness Day

A volunteer works with an Eberwhite fourth-grader, simulating how it feels for a person who is visually impaired.

At one station, parent Felicia Garcia was showing students how to balance on a special board while trying to read, simulating how it feels for people who have had a stroke. Garcia’s daughter, now a sixth-grader, was impacted strongly by her Disability Awareness
Workshop Day several years ago. “She had a lot of questions that night,” Garcia said. “Since then, I’ve tried to volunteer. I’d glad to do it. I think it’s really important.”

U-M medical student Anirban Sahu was working a station that had students simulating walking with a prosthetic device. “They love it,” he said. “They’re very surprised at how difficult it is. I think this gives them an appreciation for it.”

The event was started several years ago at Logan Elementary School by parent Steve Schwartz (see video above), who continues to stay involved by manning tables at the awareness workshops and by doing hour-long presentations about his own disability at some of the workshops. Schwartz did his 50th disability workshop presentation at Eberwhite (see related video), where he shared his story about becoming severely ill due to a lung infection 21 years ago and losing his fingers, toes on one leg and a portion of his other leg due to the lack of oxygen circulating in his system.

“Can you imagine what it would be like to push a wheelchair through the snow outside? Terrible. You couldn’t do it. The world isn’t flat … it isn’t hard. I remember getting stranded in the middle of somebody’s back yard,” he told students, sharing the seriousness of the situation, but using a touch of humor.

“It’s something I want you guys to remember. Welcome to my world.”

Schwartz, who worked as an attorney before his illness, told students to never give up on their dreams. Once a champion Ping-Pong player who also loved to play the piano, Schwartz told students that he decided to play both again. He now not only plays the piano, but also composes music.

“I don’t put limits on myself, and that’s what I have learned,” he told students. “I say I’m just going to keep trying – you never know what you can do. I don’t think you can come up with something I can’t do … I can do the impossible and so can you.”

Melnykowycz said Schwartz’s presentation “is the highlight of the day and generally what students talk about long after Disability Awareness Workshop is over.”

Students from the Dance Marathon at the University of Michigan – a fundraising group for pediatric rehabilitation – also did a presentation to explain why and how they help. This year’s event (http://dmum.org) will run from 10 a.m. March 26 until 4 p.m. March 27 at the U-M Indoor Track Building.

Linda Briggs, a volunteer from the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, spoke with students about what is like to be legally blind and live with a variety of disabilities and also shared information about CIL.

Until two years ago, AAPAC had to borrow a kit with the materials needed for Disability Awareness Workshop Day and had to accomplish all of the days within a few weeks. They now have their own kit and, this year, have a trailer in which to store everything that can be taken from school to school. Melany Raubolt, an Eberwhite parent and member of the AAPAC board, said the change has allowed more schools to be involved and has allowed programs to be done over a longer period of time.

View images from Eberwhite’s Disability Awareness Workshop Day:

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