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Helping kids break stereotypes

First-graders learn firsthand about disabilities – and respect.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 2008

Maggie Doben's students watch the documentary she produced.

SARAH BETH GLICKSTEEN/The Christian Science Monitor

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When Maggie Doben's first-graders find a wheelchair in the middle of their room, she meets their curiosity with questions of her own: Who might need to use this? Would they be able to get around the classroom? How do you think it works?

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Inevitably they ask if she knows anyone they can meet who uses a wheelchair. Of course, she does. During an eight-week session, her students at the Cambridge Friends School have the chance to befriend at least half a dozen people with a wide range of physical disabilities.

It's a unique program that's also part of a growing trend to help children become more sensitive to those who may somehow be "different."

"Helping to answer their questions really does combat discriminatory behaviors," Ms. Doben says. "Children of 6 already have stereotypes ... but [they] are very apt to challenge those stereotypes and be able to turn their thinking around."

Before the visits, they learn the alphabet in sign language or make textured vases for a blind guest. They learn why a "little person" prefers to be called that rather than "midget" or "dwarf." They find out it's OK to ask whatever they're curious about.

Doben tracked down some junior-high students who had a similar first-grade class with her in another city to find out if the lessons stuck. Their comments are part of her new documentary, "Labeled Disabled," which she hopes will help parents and teachers see the potential of disabilities-awareness education.

The students "feel more confident now to be allies and ... more comfortable in the presence of people with disabilities," Doben says. And as an increasing number of wounded soldiers return from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she adds, "it's incredibly important for children and all people to be prepared for how to interact with brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers ... [with] disabilities."

Many schools offer some lessons on disabilities, but rarely at such a deep, personal level.

"Every school these days is working in the antibias, antibullying fields, [but] I think few are focusing their efforts on disabilities," says Jamie Kaplan, executive director of The Cromwell Center for Disabilities Awareness in Portland, Maine.

The center so far has reached about 20,000 third- to fifth-graders with its programs, and demand is "exponential," he says.

One reason such education is needed: People still stare, tease, and exclude.