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?
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.
Someone once whistled the "Heigh-ho" song from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" as Marie Trottier walked by. She's a little person, one of Doben's repeat visitors who works at Harvard University. At the Cambridge Friends School, students run up to talk with her and parents thank her.
"It's nice to have that level of acceptance and inclusion; it feels good, versus the hurt and the stereotypes," she says. "They'll be great peer leaders."
Doben's curriculum, cotaught by fellow first-grade teacher Anthony Reppucci, is "much more thorough than anything I've ever seen," says Jacqueline Miller, a science curriculum developer who uses a wheelchair. "The kids ask very intelligent questions."
In the documentary, students watch wide-eyed as a man whose arms are paralyzed draws with his toes.
One boy asks, "How do people in wheelchairs go to the bathroom?" Another visitor talks about being born with one hand, and a girl asks, "Can you swim?"
One question they often ask: If you could fix your disability, would you?
Ms. Trottier answers no, saying she sees her difference as a "little person" as an asset.
Ms. Miller says yes, she'd love to walk again, having lost the ability 11 years ago after a fall.
The film "will really help people realize ... you can ask somebody [about a disability], but try to do it in an appropriate manner," says Emmett Steven, a fourth-grader who participated in Doben's disabilities awareness program when he was in the first grade.
Doben says she's been interested in disabilities since she was young, although not from any personal experience with her own family.
When she was looking for people to visit her students, she networked at local disability organizations and she also established relationships through everyday public contacts.
She once approached a woman sitting on a telephone book on top of a barstool. The woman is a pediatrician who happily agreed to start visiting Doben's class in Pittsburgh.
Doben's personal commitment stands out to Cambridge Friends School principal Jody Ziebarth.
The students start off not knowing what "disability" means and become "completely conversant ... about disabilities in a way that's mature for little guys," she says. "It's pretty remarkable."
For more information, see www.labeleddisabledfilm.com.