These days, schools and educators recognize the need to create positive and inclusive learning environments for children with different physical and learning abilities. But kids are kids and growing up is growing up, and it can still be a challenge for differently abled students to feel comfortable at school.

For the past seven years, Mountainville Academy in Alpine, Utah, has held a Different Abilities Day at the end of September to give differently abled children and their families a chance to talk about their challenges in an environment that feels safe as well as to “provide typical kids with understanding and empathy for students with mental or physical disabilities,” says Jason Nielson, Mountainville’s assistant principal and school counselor.

The format of the event depends on several factors. Mountainville serves students in grades K-9, so different age groupings sometimes participate in different scenarios. For several years, the school’s Family School Organization facilitated a role-playing model in which the older students created skits based on scenarios selected by teachers to present to the younger students. Each year the skits changed be-cause teachers choose scenarios based on the current needs of the students in their classroom.

“Over the years, we have seen that the older students are excited for their turn to prepare the skits and help the younger students learn how to behave with good character,” says Becky Garzella, a volunteer and past chairwoman with the FSO. “The younger students enjoy having the older students mentor them. This causes both groups to think and consider what it means to behave with good character and helps them become more caring toward their fellow students.”

Another model sometimes used involves setting up in-class stations that might demonstrate, for example, what something looks like to a child with dyslexia or what it’s like to function with only one arm.

“We try to provide physical activities of how students can better understand disabilities,” Nielson says. “We have had students try wheelchairs at school in role plays as paraplegics and students volunteering to be socially isolated for a few hours to better understand how someone who feels left out might feel.”

Most recently, the format for both older and younger students was an assembly with two differently abled students’ parents as speakers, mainly because that format better suited those students’ particular challenges—one has Down syndrome and the other, dwarfism.

Other challenges represented through the years have included vision impairments and dysgraphia, a learning issue that affects writing. In the future, organizers hope to bring attention to autism disorders, among other challenges.

Overall, says Nielson, the experience is a “relief for kids who are [differently abled]. It’s nice for them to see that other people can understand their challenge.”

“Everyone feels one time or another like an outcast,” he adds. Different Abilities Day reinforces the fact that “we all have struggles. We need to help each other.”


Mountainville Academy

Alpine, Utah
770 students, grades K-9

How Mountainville Academy Plans Different Abilities Day

May

  • During the school calendar meeting for the following year, discuss and decide on an approximate date to hold the event.

August

  • After school starts, identify possibilities for Different Abilities Day topics based on the current school population.
  • Schedule a final event date on the school calendar about a month in advance (Mountainville Academy’s Different Abilities Day is held at the end of September).

September

  • Three weeks before the event, talk with presenters and parent volunteers and review what will be presented.
  • Ask the school librarian to help find stories that go with the theme for teachers to read to students during the week of the event.
  • The week of the event, have students participate in activities that highlight the different abilities being discussed. Example activities include reading stories in class and participating in activities that demonstrate what having that different ability might be like.
  • The day of the event, hold parent volunteer training about 30 minutes before activities, if needed.