Teaching Students that Disabilities are Nothing Unusual

Lehigh Valley schools are teaching students that wheelchairs, disabilities are nothing unusual, with help from ‘Laughing at My Nightmare’ author Shane Burcaw.

Katie Hunsicker worried that her daughter, Leah, would be bullied or ostracized when the 5-year-old began kindergarten this year.

Leah, a student at Clearview Elementary School, has trouble seeing, uses a walker and can’t run or play the same as other children can. The Bethlehem girl has a genetic condition known as Joubert syndrome, which develops early in children’s brains and causes them to lose some of their vision, balance and coordination.

But Leah looks forward to going to school every day to share her love of Minnie Mouse and coloring with her friends. Her classmates treat her like they do anyone else her age.

And that’s just how it should be, says a local organization revamping a program to further encourage Clearview Elementary and other Lehigh Valley schools in making Leah and other children with physical limitations feel like they belong.

“It’s a real simple concept,” said Mitch Lenett, chief development officer of The Arc of Lehigh and Northampton Counties, about The Arc’s Infusion of Inclusion 2.0 program, which the organization is reviving after several years of dormancy. “We want to instill in kids how to be welcoming toward their peers who have disabilities, which come in all shapes and sizes. And we want to communicate this message in a nonacademic way that’s fun and relatable for kids.”

Arc events and marketing director Chris Kaklamanis said children don’t necessarily learn this acceptance at home.

“Many parents are too busy trying to make ends meet to sit down and have discussions like this with their children at home, which makes schools vital in partnering with organizations like ours on efforts like this,” Kaklamanis said.

Hunsicker is glad her fears have proven unwarranted.

“When I went to school, we didn’t have anything like [Infusion of Inclusion 2.0],” said Hunsicker, of Bethlehem. “A program like that would be amazing.”

Lenett and Kaklamanis said the original Infusion of Inclusion involved a presentation put on by guest speakers during assemblies at all grade levels in various school districts. This time, the program, supported by Lehigh Valley community partners Air Products, Crayola, IronPigs Charities and Just Born, will focus on elementary schools, where students are most receptive to its message.

The half-hour program will begin with three assemblies Wednesday at Clearview Elementary in Bethlehem Area School District and three more Nov. 10 at Wescosville Elementary School in East Penn School District.

“This is an amazing opportunity for our students to learn about inclusion, acceptance equity and respect for others,” Clearview Elementary Principal Heather Bennett-Knerr said. “This is a lifelong skill for our students. We want to start them learning at a young age not to be afraid of people who are different.”

The presentations will feature diversity-centered children’s literature, including a book by Bethlehem native Shane Burcaw, who founded the nonprofit Laughing at My Nightmare.

Burcaw has been using a wheelchair since he was diagnosed at age 2 with spinal muscular atrophy, a progressive neuromuscular disease that limits his ability to walk, eat and breathe. He relies on others to help him with daily tasks like getting dressed, and getting into and out of his wheelchair.

“Kids are endlessly curious about disability,” said Burcaw, who will appear on video reading his latest book, “Not So Different.”

“Much of the stigma associated with disability begins to develop when that initial curiosity is met with negative reactions and misinformation,” Burcaw said. “If children are given the opportunity to learn about disability in a positive, accepting space, they realize that disability is just one of the many things that make us all unique, rather than something to be avoided or feared.”

Burcaw recalls being very vocal in encouraging his classmates to treat him as they did every other child.

“Having a disability is not a bad thing,” he said. “People who use wheelchairs, like I do, go on to become scientists, artists, parents, doctors, lawyers and much more. We need to remember to treat all people with respect and friendliness, no matter who they are or what they look like.”

That’s the message Infusion of Inclusion 2.0 hopes to expand on.

“Since we’ve gotten requests to bring the program to more schools, we’ve hired a professional videographer to film the presentation so we can send copies of that film to all 16 Bethlehem Area elementary schools and all seven East Penn schools,” Lenett said. “It’ll be up to the schools as to how they use this further.

“And we’ve gotten requests from more schools not just in the Lehigh Valley, but across the state,” he said. “We anticipate this is going to snowball and be really incredible.”

By Andrew Scott

Story by The Morning Call

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