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Learning To Walk in Others’ Shoes

Special Needs Awareness Week at Wayside teaches acceptance and empathy.

Students from Wayside Elementary School in Potomac wear mittens while trying to pick up small objects in a container. The activity, which is part of the school’s Special Needs Awareness Week, is designed to simulate sensory deprivation.

Students from Wayside Elementary School in Potomac wear mittens while trying to pick up small objects in a container. The activity, which is part of the school’s Special Needs Awareness Week, is designed to simulate sensory deprivation. Georgette Grossman

— Gracie Yoon, a third grade student at Potomac’s Wayside Elementary School recently spent part of her academic day walking on crutches and moving herself around a classroom in a wheel chair. Yoon is not a student with special needs, however.

“I went into someone's shoes,” said Yoon. “I would feel really frustrated. I'm thankful that I don't have a disability."

Yoon’s activities were part of a weeklong Wayside initiative called SNAP (Special Needs Awareness Program), which is aimed at fostering empathy and sensitivity to others in the students. The effort, which is in its second year, included interactive stations and speech simulation activities. Students also had opportunities to test equipment designed to aide those with speech, vision, audio and physical impairments.

“It is really about building tolerance and knowing that we have to respect everyone.” — Nancy Averill, Wayside School counselor and Special Needs Awareness Program coordinator

“Through the interactive stations, the students learned about the challenges faced by people with mobility, balance, coordination, speech and fine motor disabilities,” said Heather Sachs, one of SNAP’s co-founders and the mother of a Wayside first grade student with Down syndrome.

The week also included a visit from Potomac native, former U.S. Army officer and decorated Iraq War veteran Luis Montalván. Montalván wrote “Until Tuesday,” a memoir based on his story of healing with the help of his golden retriever Tuesday. During presentations to parents, teachers and students, he shared a message of acceptance and discussed what it is like to live with physical and psychological disabilities.

“The goal is to build awareness and the fact that we have to be mindful of people who are different,” said Nancy Averill, Wayside School counselor and SNAP program coordinator.

During the week, students researched, read books and had class discussions on disabilities. “This experience provides my students the opportunity to not only talk the talk, but to walk the walk," said Jennifer Lewington, a third grade teacher at Wayside.