Students learn respect for peers

Published 8:56 pm Saturday, October 23, 2010

Signing pledge: Kelly Lafferty signs a “People First Language Pledge” on Friday at John Yeates Middle School.

Its efforts aren’t limited to October, but the Special Education Advisory Committee and department are hard at work in the schools this month, which has been designated Disability History and Awareness Month.

Students are partaking in the “People First Language Pledge,” physical education activities and other events this month to help create a culture of mutual respect, understanding and equal opportunities.

“Disabilities are a part of life and we want our students and staff to recognize, understand and be sensitive to students who have them,” said Antoine Hickman, coordinator of special education for Suffolk Public Schools. “While recognizing the differences we have, we also want students to identify the commonalities they have with the students.”

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There are approximately 1,780 students enrolled in one of the 14 special education categories in Suffolk Public Schools.

Those categories include emotional disturbances, specific learning disabilities, autism, intellectual disabilities, orthopedic impairments, deaf or blind and traumatic brain injury.

The committee has chairpersons at each school who are responsible for organizing special events this month and throughout the year to recognize the accomplishments and differences of people through history, the community and schools.

Sarah Andino is a chairperson at John Yeates Middles School, which has led its morning announcements with trivia about famous people who have disabilities.

“It was surprising, but the kids got really excited about the trivia,” Andino said. “I had students stop me outside of school for the answers.”

Students in the school, and all other schools, also signed a “People First Language Pledge.”

“It focuses on not labeling a person by their disability,” Hickman said. “They are people, first and foremost.”

For example, students using people-first language would say “Mike has autism” rather than “Mike is autistic.”

Other activities in the school included the use of scooters, wheelchairs and crutches in gym activities. Students explored artists, musicians, politicians, educators, athletes and other role models with disabilities. Support staff and counselors provided individual and group counseling on disability harassment, bullying, mediation and the need for disability sensitivity. There were also essay contests and door decorating contests, parent and community volunteers speaking to students using the “Celebrating Our Differences” curriculum.

“School is hard enough for students without the challenge of a disability,” Andino said. “It’s been neat watching the other students open up and be interested and motivated. We’re really focusing on bringing that to students this month, and we still have things we’re doing all throughout the year.”