Disability awareness week – an eye-opening experience for AHS students

Blindfolded students tap along long rows of lockers, trying to find their way to the lunchroom.

A blindfolded Parker Brancato tries to find four paper clips buried in a bowl of rice, an exercise that made him realize “if you can’t see, you have to think a lot more carefully before doing anything.” Photo by Sue Austreng

A blindfolded Parker Brancato tries to find four paper clips buried in a bowl of rice, an exercise that made him realize “if you can’t see, you have to think a lot more carefully before doing anything.” Photo by Sue Austreng

Flashing light and raucous noise reverberates in students’ brains as they strain to hear a conversation.

Strumming guitar music turns cacophonic as students try to play Guitar Hero to music that’s not on the screen.

The exercises were part of Anoka High School’s (AHS) week-long disability awareness event, an opportunity for the able bodied to experience the challenges of those with disabilities.

“I hope they gain an understanding, gain patience and learn how to help out,” said Ann Sarazin, AHS special education teacher, as able-bodied students experienced simulations and talked with students with disabilities about their experience.

Simulating autism, traumatic brain injury and developmental cognitive delays, learning disabilities, deaf and hard of hearing, emotional and behavioral disorders and visual impairment, each day was a real eye-opener.

“That maze was awful. I was so confused. I heard the Deca Mart music and thought I was right there – I was way on the other end of the hallway,” said freshman Chioma Uwagwu, astounded after wearing a blindfold and trying to find her way through the maze of lockers near the school cafeteria.

Tornado football player Dayne McCullough’s eyes were opened not just to the difficulty of finding his way around while blindfolded, but of the impairment that results when bystanders steer you in the wrong direction.

“You think people are going to help you and then you realize they’re just messing with you, trying to make you run into the walls,” McCullough said.

Hannah Andrusko-Starks, an AHS student who has been diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder), ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) and minor OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), recognizes the value of the simulations.

“Kids don’t really get it until they try it. Or they think you’re faking it. But no, that’s what it’s like every day. Welcome to my world,” she said.

Anoka High School student council member Peter Hastings ties a blindfold on classmate Austin Reineke as fellow student council member Maren Weaver describes a visual impairment simulation exercise to Shannon Haley. The simulation was part of a week-long disability awareness event at the high school. Photo by Sue Austreng

Anoka High School student council member Peter Hastings ties a blindfold on classmate Austin Reineke as fellow student council member Maren Weaver describes a visual impairment simulation exercise to Shannon Haley. The simulation was part of a week-long disability awareness event at the high school. Photo by Sue Austreng

The disability awareness event – the brainchild of AHS’s special needs students – was planned by students in Sarazin’s vocational skills in the community class, a course that helps students with developmental cognitive delays learn skills for independent living.

Haley Hodgin, a freshman whose vision is impaired by glaucoma, described to those stopping by the awareness table what it’s like to have no peripheral vision and to see only fuzzy images.

“That’s what I see,” Hodgin said, showing fellow students a fuzzy image on an iPad. “That’s the best I get.”

She then described her coping mechanism. “You just have to live your life and love it as best you can,” Hodgin said.

According to Sarazin, giving students a glimpse into the life and times, the challenges and the successes of students living with disabilities opens doors to better understanding and increased compassion.

It also helps the disabled students to identify how they can help themselves, Sarazin said.

“This is an important opportunity for students to learn how powerful self-advocacy is. It will help them gain the confidence to be able to step up and say, ‘I can do these things, but this is what I need help with,’” she said.

Sarazin also said her students hope the event will help their peers and their teachers understand them better.

“Sometimes (students with disabilities) feel isolated in mainstream classes because their peers don’t know how to talk with them or don’t understand them,” she said. “Even teachers don’t always remember that students with some disabilities may need a little extra time to answer a question or to have things explained in a different way.”

Sue Austreng is at sue.austreng@ecm-inc.com

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