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Pupils put away books, learn lesson in respect


Bel Air Middle School students closed their textbooks Thursday and put away their pens and pencils for another kind of education: learning respect and tolerance for disabled people.

About 20 people with disabilities, including blindness and epilepsy, spoke to classes.

"I've learned that there are more similarities than differences," said Erin Troy, a 13-year-old student at the school.

She was assigned to escort Karen Johnsen, Ms. Wheelchair Maryland, around the school during Disability Day.

Students got to hear at least one speaker and watch a game of wheelchair basketball.

Erin said she was "sort of" surprised that people with disabilities could do many things that nondisabled people could do.

Ms. Johnsen, 38, who used a motorized wheelchair to get around the school, said she encounters that kind of surprise daily.

She retired from the state on disability in 1991 after working for 10 years as the appointments clerk at the University of Maryland College Park health center.

"One of the reasons I like to come to schools is that I want to show students that I could be their mother. I have a son in middle school, and I help with homework. I do all the things their mothers do," said Ms. Johnsen, who learned she had muscular dystrophy when she was 12 years old.

"Middle schools are a good place to break down barriers, to teach children what people with disabilities can accomplish," she said.

This is the first time a county middle school has sponsored a Disability Day, said Pat Ritz, a mathematics teacher at the school.

The school plans to repeat the program every three years.

Ms. Ritz said she got the idea from one of her students.

"There was a boy in one of my classes who was really worried about what would happen to his blind sister if she came to a regular school. He was afraid other students would reject her," she said.

Students, like the ones in Peggy Blade's morning math class, were curious but never mocked or laughed at the speakers.

Gary Markowski, 13, wanted to know if Meryl Shecter, who has been blind since birth, could write on paper.

Mrs. Shecter, who works for the Internal Revenue Service in Baltimore, said she can write her name but otherwise must use a bulky machine that types in Braille.

Mrs. Shecter, 42, told the class that she can do almost everything a sighted person can. For example, she works full time answering phone calls about taxes -- a job that does not require sight.

Appliances and other machines that "talk" make life easier, she said. Her husband, Charles, a self-employed computer programmer, also is blind.

"At home we have a talking bathroom scale, a talking microwave and a talking calculator," she said, passing around a Braille watch and a talking clock to the students.

Many students asked questions about her guide dog, a black Labrador named Utah.

"Can you take your dog on planes?" asked Greg Swatek, 14.

"It is a federal law that guide dogs are allowed in any public place. If someone tries to stop us from taking our guide dogs, we can call the police," she said.

Mrs. Shecter, who lives in Bel Air, said she has never had to call the police but has come close. She said a Chinese restaurant recently refused to let her take her dog inside.

Someone working at the restaurant soon realized that guide dogs were allowed, she said.

"After that they bent over backward to accommodate us. It's all a matter of educating people," she said.

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