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Understanding Differences is a disability awareness program established by the RISD Council of PTAs to help students empathize with their peers through simulations.

The first program of this school year was held at North Junior High School in October for 5th graders from Canyon Creek, Greenwood Hills, Mohawk, Northrich and Prairie Creek. The program includes stations designed with input from district therapists that simulate what it’s like to live with a disability.

“Richardson ISD is committed to providing meaningful experiences to all our students to help support them socially, emotionally and academically,” Deputy Superintendent Tabitha Branum says. “Understanding Differences is an opportunity for our students to experience what it might feel like to spend a day as a student with autism … maybe as a student who is experiencing hearing difficulties or eyesight difficulties … a student with dyslexia. It creates an opportunity for our students to be immersed in the experience and to relate … to develop empathy and most importantly to understand how they as a friend, how they as a peer can support those students who might be differently-abled than they are.”

Brian Spann is living with muscular dystrophy. He spoke in October to the RISD 5th graders about how he is an eagle scout, how he was a member of his high school band and how MD doesn’t prevent him from doing anything he wants to do.

“Living with a disability doesn’t affect your desire to do great things,” Spann told the students at North. “A big thing we are trying to teach [students] is to stand up and protect. And also just be kind to other people that have differences by understanding that they are made differently, but we can help them achieve great things.”

The RISD Council of PTAs plans to have all campuses experience this program on a two-year rotation. Over the past few years, Hollis Owens coordinated the program for the Council’s Special and Gifted Education arm.

As SAGE chair, Owens created a volunteer committee to help man and operate stations, while she worked with RISD therapists and staff to review and update each station. She added a writing disability station and improved equipment. Owens also worked to include adults with disabilities as volunteers in the program during her stint as chair that ended in 2017.

Beth Sheehan and Debbie Bono are current Understanding Differences coordinators, and they’ve picked up where Owens left off. They met with RISD Director of special student services, Dr. Cindy Lawrence, and Deputy Superintendent Branum to create a plan in which all fifth graders would travel to junior high campuses to experience the hands-on program.

In November, 5th graders from Aikin, Forest Lane, Merriman Park, Moss Haven, Skyview and Stults Road will attend the program at Forest Meadow Junior High. 

Then, in January students from Audelia Creek, Forestridge, Harben, O. Henry and Springridge will go to Liberty. And in February, the fifth grades at Big Springs, Dartmouth, Mark Twain, Terrace, Richland, Yale and MST will bus over to Apollo Junior High to participate in Understanding Differences.

Current SAGE Chairwoman Emily Villamar-Robbins says “feedback has been extremely positive, and numerous teachers and parents have contacted us to share how meaningful the program has been for their children.”

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