Unless they are raised with a disabled family member in the house, many children have a difficult time understanding what it means to be disabled. Disability awareness exercises increase children's understanding of disabilities and foster sensitivity toward others, especially those who are the most easily targeted by their peers. Be careful to keep the treatment of disabilities respectful during these activities.
Blindfolds are often used to allow sighted children to experience what it means to live blindly in a sighted person’s world. Blindfold the children for a while and have them try to do an everyday activity without sight. Have the children wear someone else’s glasses for a few minutes while trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle or read a story aloud. Put an eye patch over one eye and have the students experience the loss of depth-perception that people with one eye must learn to live with.
There is not an accurate way to simulate hearing loss. Hearing loss is not simply a matter of having the volume turned down, it is also characterized by distortion. Have the students wear personal stereos with just static noise playing for the course of one short lesson. Discuss how difficult it was to understand the lesson with the background noise and distortion caused by the radio. Play a lip-reading game where students pair off and have to read certain phrases by mouthing the words silently. The partner should write down what she thinks she heard. Take turns reading lips and mouthing words. At the end of the exercise, partners should compare the answers.
Simulating physical disabilities to increase awareness is the simplest for you to demonstrate as well as for the children to understand. While it might be difficult to imagine hearing loss and its impact on daily life, imagining what it would be like to go through life without an arm is something most children can understand. To simulate a physical disability like cerebral palsy or others where a loss of balance is primary, tape a line of masking tape on the floor as if it was a balance beam. Have each child close her eyes and spin her around in circles a few times, and then have her open her eyes and try to walk down the line and see how far she can get without stepping off.
By simulating scenarios where a person with an intellectual disability might have difficulty communicating, you will allow the children in your class the chance to experience the accompanying frustration. Write a basic sentence on a piece of paper. Have one child read the sentence and then ask him to convey it to the rest of the group without writing, speaking or spelling. The game will be fun and similar to charades, but will also show the class how hard it is to communicate when your language skills are taken away.
To encourage children to differentiate between mental and physical disabilities and not to assume that they are always experienced together, bring in a few pairs of thick socks, button-down shirts and some rulers. Tie a ruler between each students’ ankles and have him or her walk up and down the hallway. Put socks over your students’ hands and have them try to tie their shoes and button up a shirt. They will see how difficult it can be to live with a physical disability, but also that even though their minds are fully functioning, they had difficulty with day-to-day physical activities. This is the case for many physically disabled people who are not intellectually disabled.
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