Understanding Disabilities promotes disability awareness through educational programming in the Reading Public Schools of Massachusetts. The organization, a mainstay in Reading for 31 years, seeks to help children see beyond people’s disabilities by focusing on one another’s innate similarities as humans. The program was conceived by Reading resident Judy LeBlanc in 1984, after seeing the enthusiasm and openness expressed by students firsthand when she spoke with them about her blindness.
Killam Elementary school fourth grade teacher Tonia McGuire says of the organization, “I look forward to Understanding Disabilities every year. The lessons and speaker sessions are well prepared and engaging for all students. The program successfully promotes compassion and acceptance of differences among everyone at our school and extends throughout our community.”
From mid-October to May, Understanding Disabilities has at least one unit running nearly every week in one of Reading’s elementary schools – totaling 150 lessons each year. At the elementary level, students benefit from lessons on six types of disabilities: physical disabilities, visual and hearing impairments, developmental disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder and learning disabilities. These topics are presented to students in an age-appropriate manner through books, videos, and other hands-on activities. Understanding Disabilities also offers a guest speaker series at the Middle School level, where students are introduced to exceptional guests living with disabilities. In the end, students possess the ability to internalize the message that we are all fundamentally the same, while raising awareness and respect for those with differences.
In 2014, Understanding Disabilities was selected by Cummings Foundation to receive a grant through their “$100K for 100” program. “Understanding Disabilities will broaden and deepen the services we provide to Reading children as a result of this important and generous grant from Cummings Foundation,” explained Paula Tucci, Understanding Disabilities Executive Director. “Our ability to highlight our innate similarities, that which we all have in common, will improve when we make these changes,” said Tucci. This ultimately allowed the organization the funding to move their curriculum forward to meet the new realities of today’s inclusive classrooms.
Their continual growth was later recognized by the Massachusetts Senate, which commended the organization’s “…dynamic and relevant curriculum, modified through the years to reflect current medical knowledge, best teaching practices and the needs of students and classrooms.”
Over 250 volunteers will be involved this year, who will continue to support Understanding Disabilities’ objective – emphasizing all the things that people with disabilities can do and promoting a culture of inclusion and respect.