Fifth and sixth graders at Congregation Beth Emeth (CBE) Religious School in Herndon, Virginia, were asked: “What are three things you think of when you think of a person who has learning disabilities?” Their answers differed significantly before and after they participated in a workshop on learning disabilities.
For example, the answers students gave before the workshop showed they did not have a clear understanding of what constitutes a learning disability. “Using a wheelchair,” “blind,” “Deaf,” and “lonely people” were some of their associations.
After the workshop, however, students demonstrated a more nuanced understanding of what learning disabilities are and how they manifest in different ways. Responses included:
“They have a different way of learning things or processing things.”
“They can be smarter than me.”
“Disabilities affect different people in different ways.”
“School is probably very hard for them.”
“Disabilities can be frustrating.”
“I need to be more patient or supportive.”
Students participated in a three-hour seminar on disability awareness through the “Ambassador for Inclusion” program, which is funded by a grant from the Jteen Philanthropy program from The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Using the analogy of a computer, students learned the ways the brain takes in, processes, stores, and shares information, and that learning can be impacted when someone has a learning disability that affects one or more of these areas. Guest speaker Diane Cooper-Gould, president of Fairfax County Special Education Parent-Teacher Association (SEPTA), engaged the students in a thoughtful conversation about her own experiences growing up with dyslexia.
Using hands-on activities in four interactive centers, students gained understanding about various cognitive processes that can be impacted by learning disabilities. They recognized the importance of carefully and individually selected instructional strategies for students with learning disabilities. Participants also learned the importance of self-advocacy, patience with peers, tolerating frustration, and the value of empathy and compassion for one another. Discussions drew parallels between these skills and Jewish values, as well as references to Jewish text associated with disability awareness and inclusion.
By Michelle Cades
Michelle Cades is the special needs coordinator at Congregation Beth Emeth Religious School in Herndon, Virginia.