At Rodgers Forge Elementary, students learn lessons in 'differences'

First Appreciating Differences Day at Rodgers Forge in Towson teaches students about disabilities

Questions filled the halls of Rodgers Forge Elementary School Friday during the school's first-ever Appreciating Differences Day, in which parents and professionals spoke with students about a variety of disabilities and how people with disabilities live and thrive.

The morning program brought more than a dozen volunteer speakers to the school to talk about autism, food allergies, Down syndrome, special education transportation, and other subjects.

Classes heard from two speakers, each of whom spoke for 30 minutes. Some speakers asked students questions about their perceptions of disabilities, while students asked speakers about adapting to, living with, and working with people with disabilities.

Lisa Ludwig, the school's guidance counselor, organized the event, which took the place of a more traditional career day this year. The inspiration for the event came from the school system's new counseling curriculum, which focuses on "appreciating differences" in February. In addition to the event, students posted photos and images on a wall outside the guidance office listing ways in which they are different — some listed hobbies or sports, while another was a self-described "super-hero expert."

"We really think it's important to see the diversity we have, even in our own school," Ludwig said.

The program Friday also gave students an understanding of the lives of people they might not otherwise interact with, Ludwig said.

"I think they were really engaged," Ludwig added.

Leslie Wagner, a speech therapist at the Maryland School for the Blind, in Baltimore, discussed the school at which she works, its goals, and how everyday activities, such as soccer or rolling dice, can be adapted for people who are visually impaired or blind.

Wagner, who lives in Rodgers Forge, volunteered for the event because she has a son in 4th grade at the school, and to raise awareness of what vision impairment and blindness mean.

She explained to a group of fourth-graders that blindness doesn't necessarily mean not being able to see at all. To demonstrate that point she distributed glasses that gave students a sense of what it means to be visually impaired. She then showed the class a rattling soccer ball, a talking dice, books written in Braille and other implements that visually impaired people use.

"One of our mottoes is, 'Look at the ability, not the disability,' " Wagner said.

U.S. Paralympic athlete Alyssa Gialamas, of Baltimore, spoke to students alongside Brian Loeffler, a swim coach whose sister, Michele Rowland, is an assistant principal at Rodgers Forge Elementary.

Brian Loeffler coached the U.S. Paralympic swimming team in 2012 and currently coaches at Loyola University, where Gialamas is a member of the swim team. Gialamas suffers from a condition that caused her joints and muscles to develop only partially. She walks with the assistance of two leg braces, which she doesn't need to swim.

"We try to maximize what she can do and minimize what she can't," Loeffler said.

Gialamas discussed her competitive spirit with students. Her twin brother was not born with a disability as she was, she said, adding, "I would always keep up with what my brother was doing."

She began physical therapy, including swimming, at age 3.

"I always liked swimming because I could beat my brother," she said.

Gialamas told the students that she holds several American paralympic swimming records. She also addressed challenges she faces outside the pool, such as getting up and down steps. She also can drive, she explained to students, describing a device that allows her to accelerate or brake with her hands.

After the presentation, Gialamas said she was happy to have an opportunity to show students how a person can overcome a disability.

Ludwig said she heard positive feedback from teachers about the event, adding that Rodgers Forge might begin holding Appreciating Differences Day on a biennial basis.

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