A very special way to walk in the footsteps of another

It is ''Footsteps Day'' at Creekside Elementary School in Palo Alto, Calif.

Mary Minkus - a visitor at the school for this one day - sits smiling and gracious before a group of children. Mrs. Minkus, the mother of two high-school-age sons, has used a wheelchair since early girlhood.

''Before we begin,'' she says to the group, ''I want you all to guess two things: What is my job, and what am I going to do on my vacation?''

Answers to the ''job'' question come forth: ''A housewife,'' ''An accountant, '' ''I bet you write.''

''No, I'm a lawyer,'' confides Mrs. Minkus. ''Now, what about my vacation?''

Answers grow more conservative on this one. Most mention the California possibilities: some sand, some sea, perhaps some snow.

''No,'' Mrs. Minkus laughs, ''You're all wrong. I'm going on a trip in a hot-air balloon!''

Mrs. Minkus had come to the classroom to help dispel stereotypes about people with handicaps. Her visit was part of Footsteps, a six-week program at Creekside School. The program is designed to defuse myths and to encourage children to befriend those with handicaps (primarily other children).

''I think it is an old Indian proverb which says 'Don't judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins,' '' says Margene Chmyz, the originator of Footsteps. ''That's where the name 'Footsteps' came from.''

Attitudes toward handicapped persons are changing significantly. The catchwords these days are ''normalization'' and ''mainstreaming.''

''Their integration into mainstream education will be successful in direct proportion to the normal population's ability to relate to them without prejudice,'' says Mrs. Chmyz.

''Handicapped people often say that others treat them as if they were invisible... We are trying to teach children a better understanding of what it means to be a helper - to help in more mature, sophisticated ways. Often it is not so much overt help that is needed as it is appreciation, recognition - and certainly a normal friendship.''

In the first week of Footsteps the children focus on understanding disabilities and gaining better attitudes.

In the middle weeks of the program, the children are visited by experts, teachers of disabled young people, and often by those working under a disability.

Mrs. Chmyz feels the children learn that what may appear as severe disabilities may be very insignificant when the entire range of human capabilities is taken into ac- count. The point is brought home vividly when the children hear of the exceptional accomplishments of those labeled handi- capped.

On the final Friday, the school's multipurpose room exhibits equipment and games that help children appreciate how handicapped people manage. These include:

* A ''beeping'' softball. Those with visual impairments hit it with a bat like everyone else - but they use their ears to ''see'' it. On Footsteps Day, fully-sighted children blindfold themselves and try to catch the ball as it rolls, beeping, from one child to another.

* A machine which translates written material immediately into braille.

* A special bike - developed at nearby Stanford University - that is operated by using only the arms.

* A wheelchair.

* A hook that fits on the arm and works by flexing the shoulder muscles.

* A ''signing'' (sign language) demonstration.

On Footsteps Day, each class at the school visits the multipurpose room to observe and try out the equipment.

Mrs. Chmyz says that the overcoming of handicaps in our society involves responsibility on both ends - those with the handicaps and the rest. ''They are doing their part,'' she says, ''now we must do ours!''

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