By Terry Martinez

As my class headed out of the lunchroom one day, the usually indifferent Michael announced, "I'm frightened of them." He was watching our school's special-ed children in the hall.

Two weeks later, Michael and his classmates embarked on the first phase of a three-step process to educate them about these students' disabilities.

In this article, you'll find out how we began building a bridge between regular and special-ed students.

The Three Phases of Building Our Bridge
In my school, the special-ed students eat in the common lunchroom and are seen as they walk in the hallways, but there is little mingling with the regular students. Four years ago, in an attempt to change attitudes among teachers as well as students, Carla, the supervisor for special-ed, sent out a memo offering teachers in-service training leading to integrative activities with the special-ed children. I was interested, so Carla and I set up the following three-step program.

Phase 1: Special-ed staff would visit my room to talk about disabilities, how they affect children, and some of the tools used in teaching special-ed students. They'd also encourage students to ask questions. Students would then participate in a workshop that simulates disabilities.

Phase 2: My students would visit the special-ed classrooms; afterward, they'd have a chance to discuss their observations and ask more questions.

Phase 3: My students and the special-ed students would interact in a culminating activity.

Phase by Phase
During Phase 1 that first year, the children asked some questions but became truly engrossed by the equipment used in special-ed classrooms. As Roberta, an occupational therapist, described how some of the students cannot control their muscles to move their arms properly, Michael stared at his own hand, flexing and stiffening his fingers, unconsciously grimacing as he did so.

Then Ellen, a language and communications teacher, showed my students some of the tools she uses to help her children learn to communicate. Michael and the others gathered around to touch pictures that led to words issuing from a machine, repeating their phrases in a computer-recorded voice. Everyone wanted to see, hear, and touch the amazing devices that help students with speech disabilities.

A few weeks later, my class went downstairs for Phase 2. My students were divided into four groups and rotated among the four special-ed classrooms, watching as teachers and paraprofessionals worked with their students. My students then met briefly with the special-ed staff after each rotation to discuss what they'd seen.

I was concerned about how my students would react to Phase 2, but my fears were groundless. My kids had shed much of their initial fear and/or revulsion since Phase 1. They even learned some of the students' names. Their body language had changed, too. In fact, they actively sought responses from the special-ed kids and reacted to being acknowledged with a pat or a shy smile.

In the time that led up to Phase 3, my students asked frequently, "Are we working with special ed today?" Finally, on a sunny June day, my eager class went out into the school yard to participate in the Special Olympics that was the culmination of our cooperative effort. Each contestant was assigned to one or two of my students, and the games began.

My students were immersed in their roles — from encouraging a girl to throw a ball in the right direction to lifting up a youngster who needed help. Occasionally conflict arose when my students were competing over "custody" of their charges, but these ruffled feathers were quickly smoothed and they returned to claim their rightful share of guardianship.

The staff and I were elated — the Olympics and the entire experience had been wildly successful. The sun shone; we beamed. The first bridge had been crossed.

The Bridge Grows
The following year, my class underwent the same procedure and, come June, worked with special-ed youngsters to plant a school garden. Numerous bees and the occasional student waving worms at more squeamish classmates (though never at a special-ed child) did not diminish my students' enthusiasm. This time it was even more rewarding for me because of a student in my class named Gloria.
Gloria's initial response to the disabled youngsters had been revulsion; she had avoided all contact with them up to the gardening activity. That day I overheard her telling one child to rake, but the youngster couldn't hold the handle properly or make the necessary motions. "Don't tell her," I said. "Show her." Gloria looked at the child and at me. I stepped behind the child, put her fingers on the handle, and guided her arms in the raking movement.

I stepped back. Gloria came forward, put her arms around the little girl, and, together, they raked. Gloria was proud and happy, and so was I — for both of us. Gloria was not the only one who had avoided direct contact until that day. The bridge became sturdier as I — their teacher — joined them on it at last.

Were there problems? Aside from the difficulty of coordinating schedules so the classes could get together, some of the special-ed staff were skeptical that attitudes would really change. Yet now, fifth and sixth graders regularly work with the special-ed students in the gym. They enjoy helping, feel important, and have improved self-esteem. The special-ed students enjoy the individualized attention and relate well to their helpers.

Does Carla feel her original outreach across the wall of isolation has been a success? "It's broken down barriers and made disabilities and differences acceptable," she says. And me? I read what my students wrote as they began this experience, and what they write now. It has been far more valuable and enriching than many of the mandatory workshops that claim our time in school.

Now, after participating in a disabilities workshop, we are looking forward to the second year of our Special Olympics. My students can't wait. Neither can I.