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Welcome to my World helps elementary students understand peers living with a disability

PMG PHOTO: CLAIRE HOLLEY - At the fine motor skill impairment station, students had to complete various activities without regular use of their hands.The Lake Oswego School District is filled with a diverse pool of talented and unique students, some of who happen to be living with a disability. Welcome to my World (W2MW), an annual program presented by the district's Student Services Parent Advisory Committee, encourages students to explore and understand their peers with disabilities in a deeper way.

"I think W2MW is one of the most important things the students in our district can go through. It hopefully sets the foundation that disability isn't a negative thing or something that they should ignore," said SSPAC chair Becky Owens. "We also hope that students walk away with some tools that help them be more open to and inclusive of kids in their classes who may experience these disabilities."

W2MW cycles through all district elementary schools throughout the year, with the goal of helping neurotypical students understand what it's like to live with a disability through hands-on activities. This week, W2MW came to Westridge Elementary.PMG PHOTO: CLAIRE HOLLEY - Westridge fourth graders react to the itchy cloth used to minic symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder. "It's a great chance for kids to consider the experiences of people in the school that might be different than them," said Susan Fleming, the SSPAC representative at Westridge. "It feels very in line with the values of the school and the district, to promote open minds and acceptance."

During W2MW, students pass through stations that mimic the experiences of different disabilities and learning challenges including dyslexia, Sensory Processing Disorder, fine motor skill impairment and more.

The dyslexia experience involves having students attempt to read a paragraph aloud — only to discover that the words are jumbled and often include the wrong letters.

At the Sensory Processing Disorder station, students experience exaggerated stimuli such as bright flashing lights, itchy fabric put over their shoulders and loud static as they tried to complete a worksheet. These stimuli were meant to represent how students with Sensory Processing Disorder experience regular classroom sights and sounds.

"I would say the biggest benefit is the empathy and understanding that students gain by participating and experiencing the various disabilities we introduce in W2MW. The hands-on experience the students get by actually feeling what it must be like to have sensory processing disorder, or dyslexia, is far more valuable than just telling students about the disabilities," Owens said. "Students are immersed in these disabilities for a short time and walk away with a much greater appreciation and understanding of what it is like to live with these issues."

Empathy is a central focus of W2MW, while sympathy is avoided. "With W2MW, we don't want students to feel sorry for our kids. Actually, we try to teach them the exact opposite — that our kids are fantastic and that they are more alike than they are different," Owens said. "There are so many more things that unite our typical students with our disabled students than divide them. We highlight those through the discussions we have with students during the sessions."PMG PHOTO: CLAIRE HOLLEY - Westridge Elementary School counselor Gary Kieser leads the students in a reflection after the activities.

Owens said she enjoys hearing about kids having "a-ha" moments during W2MW. "They realize something they didn't understand before, or gain a piece of knowledge about a particular disability that helps them connect with a student they know who is struggling," she said. "We want the students to become closer to students with disabilities. We want the typical students to feel like they have some real understanding of what it might be like for a student who struggles to read — having struggled themselves during the module."

Gina Johnson, who is the chair of W2MW this year and a Forest Hills parent, said she hopes it helps neurotypical students see their peers with disabilities as their equals. "We don't want children to walk away feeling pity or feeling sorry for people," she said. "That doesn't encourage them to look at a child with a challenge as an equal, which is what we want. We want them to understand that these children are their equal — they're just a little different."

W2MW was held at Forest Hills Elementary in September and finished up this week at Westridge. It will be held at River Grove, Lake Grove and Oak Creek throughout October. For more information on Student Services, visit www.losdschools.org/Page/139/.


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