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Salem students pledge respect for all abilities

Salem seventh graders Destiney Houchins, left, and Madison Stewart participate in a lip-reading activity to simulate what it’s like for the hearing-impaired to communicate with others. The lesson was part of a pilot program of inclusion and awareness training presented by Columbiana County Board of Developmental Disabilities personnel at the junior high for two days this week and last month. Behind them is a banner all students were encouraged to sign to support the idea of how to treat people of different abilities. (Salem News photo by Mary Ann Greier)

SALEM — “Accept, Include & Respect people of all abilities” — that’s what Salem junior high students pledged to do after learning about the daily challenges faced by fellow students and others who are differently abled.

For Stephanie Champlin, the parent of a student with developmental disabilities, the inclusion and awareness training is all about building understanding and empathy.

“The goal is to have this in every school in Columbiana County and ultimately the state of Ohio,” she said.

Champlin approached the county Board of Developmental Disabilities and Salem city schools about helping to develop what she called a pilot program to teach students what people with developmental disabilities and other issues have to go through in the course of a day, whether they’re trying to communicate with someone else or just trying to get from one place to the next.

Eighth grade students in health classes participated in the program last month and this week the seventh grade students had their turn.

Champlin explained that the students do simulation activities to get a better understanding of what it’s like to have a specific disability.

Shirley Bowald, employment development manager for the BDD, and Courtney O’Brien, a business engagement specialist with the BDD Service and Support Administration, taught the program to the students. Boward said they developed five activities, one each to simulate hearing impairment, visual impairment, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities and dyspraxia or difficulties with small and large motor functions.

They talk to the students about the experiences and how they felt and what it would be like if they had to deal with those challenges every day. They also introduced videos before the activities.

The first day they talked to the students about disabilities and how they are lifelong, how they may need assistance to function. They talked about areas of function that can be affected, such as self-care, self-direction (knowing what to do), communication, independent living and economic self-sufficiency. For example, with hearing loss they may need to learn sign language or lip reading or wear a hearing aid.

One activity involved trying to lip read and understand what the other person was trying to communicate. Seventh grader Destiney Houchins described the task as “really difficult and challenging.” Another seventh grader, Evan Jones, said it was aggravating because he couldn’t understand what the other student was saying.

Salem junior high health and physical education teacher Elizabeth Miller, whose students participated, said the program is “a great way for them to get a better understanding of how other students have to deal with life. I wanted to make them more open-minded.”

Salem Junior High Principal Matt Ziegler talked about Champlin’s involvement and how Miller partnered with the BDD to get the students to see through the eyes of the kids with special needs and see some of the challenges they face daily in the classroom and socially. Both the junior high and the high school have an Educational Service Center classroom of students with special needs. He said almost all of the buildings in the district house ESC students with special needs.

The hope is for students to be more accepting of people with different abilities, but he also pointed out that all the students interact already because the students with special needs are included in elective classes, in band and choir and in gym class. He said it’s important for all the students to be aware because they all have different challenges. If they’re more aware, they’re more likely to include those special needs students in what they’re doing.

He said they’re hoping to continue the program next year and expand it to all junior high students and possibly have an assembly. He said the students participating now have been very receptive to the program.

Ziegler also said junior high and high school students are part of a group called Project Support that meets once a month. The students in the group have lunch with the students who have special needs and they do activities together in the library. Ziegler’s son, Caleb, 16, is a member of the high school ESC unit so he knows what it means to those students with special needs.

“He absolutely loves being able to interact with his peers every month with Project Support,” Ziegler said.

He said it’s important to raise awareness for both the students and the public. Champlin said the program is already getting attention, with two other school districts asking to have the program in their schools this year. Two businesses have also stepped forward, including Mountaineer Racetrack and Resort and Eye Care Associates, which Champlin serves as Director of Community Relations & Practice Development.

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