The Soldotna Elementary School gym was turned into an exhibition floor Wednesday as students participated in activities they don’t normally get the chance to.
It was Disability Awareness Day — an opportunity for students from Soldotna Elementary and Soldotna Montessori to learn new skills those with disabilities use on a day-to-day basis.
“Everybody is good at something and has difficulty with something, so that’s kind of the motto — walking in someone else’s shoes for the day,” Tonja Updike, the event’s coordinator, said.
Updike, who has three children, one of whom has autism, brought the idea of having the event to Lisa Gilman, his teacher at Soldotna Elementary, and Carolyn Hitzler, the adapted physical education teacher for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Updike said the two took the idea and ran with it.
Whether it was playing seated volleyball, learning how to roll a ball using only sound, trying to put socks on with tongs or learning how to use three different types of wheel chairs, the students were able to experience some of the tools students with disabilities use daily to be successful in and out of the classroom.
“There’s a lot of stuff out there,” Updike said. “We didn’t want to overwhelm people. A lot of times, not all the teachers are aware of the disabilities so this is just an opportunity to start those discussions.”
The event had two goals, the first being the two schools working together.
“The second one really would just be building awareness in the kids,” Updike said. “I have a child with a disability, so my other two (kids) are, I’d say hyper-aware of what it’s like to live with someone that has a disability and what that person might need to adapt to things.
“But for most kids, that’s not necessarily the case.”
Gilman said she was excited to help organize the event with Updike and Hitzler.
“This is what I do, this is who I love,” she said. “So I guess it’s important to me to just share what I know with other teachers and kids that might not have any experience working or going to class with kids with disabilities.”
Hitlzer, who has been working with kids with special needs for 30 years, said it is important for children to understand how many different abilities there are.
“These are the students that are their neighbors, they’ll be some employers, employees, and the prevalence of kids with special needs is on the rise,” Hitzler said. “We believe in the philosophy of inclusion, at least I do, and this is a great way of including, so all kids are successful.”
Hitzler brought some of her P.E. instruments for the kids to try. There were large racquets, small racquets, hand paddles and bouncy balls with weights in them, among others.
“Some of these kids are exposed to it when they’ve got individuals with special needs in their classes,” she said. “But not everyone in the building has that great opportunity.”
One of Updike’s sons, Cy, who attends Soldotna Montessori, was helping out with some of the activities. Cy said it’s important his classmates raise their awareness about disabilities.
“Well, you experience it a lot, you see (people with special needs) every day, and it’s just important to know a little bit more about it and know how to approach them,” Cy said. “And know how to play with them, to know a little bit about the people you’re surrounded with.”
Gilman wished the students went home with a better understanding of disabilities.
“I hope this will just able to give them an experience, familiarize themselves with seeing different tools that children with disabilities might use to be successful in P.E., in their lives and within the school environment,” she said.