The task seemed simple: opening and closing the restroom door, going to the handicap stall, getting a piece of toilet paper, throwing it away and then washing and drying hands.

But sixth-grader Audrey Harder struggled to even get the handicap stall door open. No one was helping her.

Last week, Brown County Intermediate School students learned that tasks they might think were simple aren’t that way for everyone.

“I thought that wheelchairs weren’t that hard to move around,” Harder said.

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“(It was) hard to get out (of the bathroom),” fifth-grader Lexie Austin said. “I kept on getting in the way of the door, and then I opened the door and then I hit the wheelchair.”

Special education teacher Kristen Cole started Ability Week at Brown County Intermediate School last April. Students spend a week learning about and experiencing what it is like to have a disability.

Cole has been a special education teacher in Brown County Schools for five years.

She said she’s always felt that the children and staff were “automatically already very accepting of my kids,” but “a lot of times, especially if kids don’t get outside of their community or outside their normal routine, they may not experience what it’s like, or they may not see someone or run across someone who has a special need.

“Or if they do, and they’ve never experienced it before, they panic because they don’t know how to handle it or what to expect.”

Four Ability Weeks throughout the school year take students through exercises that simulate autism, hearing loss, physical impairments and visual impairments.

‘Having that 24/7’

Last April, students went through an autism simulation.

They were given a test to take. But when they were told to start, the volunteers running the exercise turned on fans, squirted scents in the air and gave them visual distractions, all the while urging them to hurry.

“You could just tell the anxiety started to come in some of the kids,” Cole said. “And I said, ‘OK guys, think. That feeling that you have, think about having that 24/7.’”

Students were also given beads to put in their shoes.

“Some of the kids, it drove them crazy,” Cole said.

“Other kids actually loved it and said they wanted it to remain; they wanted something like that.

“I said, ‘OK, this is a perfect example. Something that might bug you a little bit is something that doesn’t bug someone else, but for a person with autism, it’s amplified by like 100 … and they have no way of letting you know what it is.’”

Last semester, the students went through hearing impairment exercises. They were asked to put earbuds on, then headphones on top of them and listen to a story being read to them.

The volunteers running the exercise also spoke in varying volumes and turned their backs to the students, making it difficult to try to read their lips.

Then, the students were quizzed over the story.

“Some of the kids were very frustrated. They were like, ‘I couldn’t hear it.’ I was like, ‘OK, again, think about it. Think about someone who is deaf or hard of hearing going through this every single day, and when you see equipment in a room for a kid, that’s why.

“It’s not something to make fun of them for, or to point out and say, ‘That’s weird.’ It’s to help them. It’s there for a reason,” Cole said.

Austin said that experience was the most eye-opening for her. “I got one question out of all of them. It was really hard,” she said.

‘What it feels like’

Last week, in addition to the bathroom, students also spent time in the classroom in wheelchairs. They had a checklist of items they had to pick up throughout the classroom to put in the backpack on their back, while maneuvering around their classmates and desks.

“You could like see what it feels like,” fifth-grader Kylie Berger said.

“It was a little bit more difficult than I had expected it to be,” sixth-grader Hadley Gradolf said. “It’s harder to move when you don’t have your legs to be able to steady yourself.”

Students also learned what it might be like to have limited arm function.

They were asked to hold one arm behind their backs and wrap boxes with paper and tape or open a bag of candy wearing multiple pairs of gloves.

At the end of the simulations, most students came to the same conclusion: when they see someone struggling, they will offer to help.

“If I see someone with a disability struggling, and I know how it feels now, I can know if they need help and I can ask them if they need help,” Gradolf said.

The next Ability Week is scheduled for May 15 to 17. Students will be given a braille name plate and will need to read it to determine which student it belongs to.

They will also will wear blacked-out goggles and use a walking stick to get around a classroom or enter a restroom.

Corporate tie

Thirteen volunteers from Cummins’ Local Community Involvement Group were in school helping during this Ability Week.

A $20,604.54 grant from the Cummins Foundation funds the Ability Week program; the money also helped make improvements to Cole’s special education classroom.

Cummins stepped in after employee Joel Lewis visited Cole’s classroom. He learned that Cole could not take the students on field trips because she didn’t have enough adult volunteers.

“I loved every last one of the kids, and they’re great to be around. I didn’t think it was fair they didn’t get to do field trips like other students,” Lewis said.

Cummins encourages employees to volunteer in their community, even giving them hours during the work day to do so. Lewis became the liaison for Cummins and BCIS, and he was able to arrange volunteers for field trips and complete a remodeling project in the classroom.

“I went through the Cummins Foundation to get a grant for what was left that we couldn’t do that week,” Lewis said, including creating more storage in the classroom and remodeling the bathroom.

Cole shared the idea of bringing Ability Week to Brown County with Lewis after learning about it at a special education conference. Thirteen Cummins volunteers stepped up to help.

Cole said there was no way she could have done any of this without Cummins.

She said the company is even considering doing Ability Weeks in its facilities as well.

“I was very happy with my building. I was going to be more happy with the county, but I figured it was going to stop there if I could get it to there,” she said.

“Now it’s gone way beyond, which is awesome.”

Become more aware

March is Disabilities Awareness Month.

The theme for Indiana’s awareness campaign this year is “I’m Not Your Inspiration.”

It’s a reminder that people with disabilities are co-workers, classmates and neighbors who want to be fully included in their communities, just like everyone else.

Brown County High School special education teacher Barb Kelp had some suggestions for how people around the community can be more sensitive:

  • Be aware of building entrances. “Can someone who uses a wheelchair or has limited mobility access your business? There are many places in our community that are inaccessible to folks in a wheelchair,” she said.
  • Check sidewalk access. “Is there a sidewalk cut or does access to your sidewalk have a step up?” she said.
  • Embrace others. “Remember, we are all people regardless of our physical traits,” she said.
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Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.