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Understanding Disabilities

Wayside’s ‘SNAP’ Week teaches challenges of special needs.

Wayside Elementary School staff take to wheelchairs in a game against the wheelchair basketball team The Maryland Ravens.

Wayside Elementary School staff take to wheelchairs in a game against the wheelchair basketball team The Maryland Ravens. Photo courtesy of Vicky Singh

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Second grade teacher Jennifer Rudolph with Wayside student Leah Sachs.

— Potomac’s St. Andrew’s Episcopal School Gym was over-flowing with students, parents and friends cheering the Wayside staff team on as they held their own against the acclaimed wheelchair basketball team The Maryland Ravens. The Wayside staff, competing in wheelchairs for the first time, immediately understood the necessity for upper-body strength, a strong core and toned biceps and triceps. After a lot of sweat, determination, laughter and the realization that “it’s definitely harder than it looks” the game ended in a tie — 86 to 86 — not really such a close game, since the teachers were spotted 70 points at the beginning of the game. The Special Olympics Montgomery County JOY Cheerleading Squad performed at half-time for the crowd.

This Hoops Spectacular Event kicked off the third annual Special Needs Awareness Program (SNAP) held Sept. 30 – Oct. 4 at Wayside Elementary School in Potomac. During the week, students engaged in experiences and activities to help them understand the special needs of those with disabilities. They read age-appropriate books and watched documentary films which led to sensitivity training lessons. They also had the opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge of how it feels to have a vision, communication or motor disability with simulation activities in which they replicated the disability. The “Kids on the Block Puppet Show” taught children to appreciate disabilities and the differences in others and themselves.

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Donna Michela, principal of Wayside Elementary School.

“This program started as a one day event, then two days — and now it’s a full week,” said Principal Donna Michela. “Every student in the school is involved and talking with their parents and siblings — and truly gaining an understanding of what it’s like to live with a disability. The week is a joint effort among our staff, the PTSA, the special needs awareness committee and our guidance counselor, Nancy Averill. The Hoops Spectacular Event was co-chaired by Wayside parents, Heather Sachs, Dena Schoenfeld and Vicky Singh. We are also appreciative of Joseph Phelan, director of operations for St. Andrew’s Episcopal School for arranging for the donation of their gymnasium for our SNAP Wheelchair Basketball event.”

Averill explained the students’ reaction to the simulation exercises: “They love to go to the stations and experience how it feels to have a handicapping condition — but when they start to understand the enormity of always having that disability, they realize how frustrating and difficult it is. The process builds empathy, perspective and understanding what it’s like to put yourself in another’s shoes.”

Wayside School community-based teachers Maureen Casey and Gretchen Solender commented on the Buddy Club at Wayside: “We have 73 students who volunteer with our students in the school community-based program and the PEP program. The kids really like being able to help their peers and learn other methods of understanding and communicating. Through this program, students really learn the value of giving back and of commitment. Every child takes a pledge to stick to their promise to volunteer.”

The SNAP program was recognized in 2011 by the MCCPTA Special Education Sub -Committee as an Outstanding Program and was highly praised in 2012 by Chrisandra Richardson, associate superintendent of MCPS Special Education, who attended the simulations and remarked that “it is a testament to the beliefs of your community about the importance of not only accepting differences, but in understanding and celebrating differences