Fourth Grade: Disabilities Awareness

“Today, (July 2011) about 50 million Americans, or 1 in 5 people, are living with at least one disability, and most Americans will experience a disability some time during the course of their lives.” (

Addressing the variety of needs of community members challenged by disabilities requires community support beyond doctors and hospitals. Independent living centers (ILCs) provide skills training and resources to help people achieve self-determined living. Areas of support include adaptive technology, home modifications, independent living skills, personal care, transportation, education, and employment. Other integral considerations are networking, peer support, recreation, social interactions, and emotional support to combat isolation. ILCs work to educate and advocate for needed changes in society and to create a barrier-free society to support the greatest level of independence for all—an accessible community and equal rights in a context of unequal mobility.

Service learning approaches to the topic of disabilities often incorporate some form of simulation or experiential component to increase understanding of the dimension of challenge posed by a disability. Equally important is real-life contact with people living with disabilities. From this combined perspective, accommodation, accessibility, and independence become more meaningful.

Ken Sider developed the Disabilities Awareness project in coordination with Don Wyckoff, the architectural barrier consultant for the Catskill Center for Independence. All students get the opportunity to spend a day in a wheelchair from the moment they arrive until the end of the school day, except for bathroom breaks. Students complete a contract outlining acceptable behavior, engage in a prewriting exercise identifying what they think they will experience, journal their experiences, invent something to address a specific challenge they faced, and finish with a final essay. Together, students create a documentary video to support their advocacy efforts. Their teacher also commits to a full day in a wheelchair.


  • Three nonmotorized, anti-tip wheelchairs: two small, one adult size (Most ILCs can lend wheelchairs. Wheelchair vendors will often donate wheelchairs for the cause directly to the schools or through nonprofit ILCs.)
  • Digital/video camera
  • Moviemaker program (optional)
  • Tools for basic school on-site assessment:
    • tape measure
    • door pressure gauge
    • two-foot bubble level/accessibility stick

Service Learning Outline:


A meeting with the ILC educator addresses the work of the organization, the range of disabilities, people-friendly language, and legislation concerning civil rights, discrimination, and accommodation. The ILC educator demonstrates how all parts of a wheelchair work: steering, locking, brakes, footrests, and traversing different ground surfaces and slopes.

In addition to providing a parental permission slip, students sign a behavior contract that requires respectful behavior, cooperative work with classmates, and requesting help only if they cannot complete a task by themselves. Students also complete a prewriting assignment on what they think the wheelchair experience will be like.

When it is their turn to spend a day in the wheelchair, students engage in a task list, attempting as possible, to:

  • Go up and down the cafeteria ramp
  • Pick up an object from the floor
  • Open a classroom window
  • Use a computer
  • Wash their hands in the classroom sink
  • Look in a mirror
  • Find and sign out library books
  • Hang up their coats and backpacks
  • Take care of their own food at lunch
  • With a partner and the teacher’s permission, try exiting and entering the school’s main door

Along with the task list, the following questionnaire lays the foundation for a personal essay assessing a variety of factors encountered in the wheelchair experience. Details, complete sentences, and parental support are advised.

  • Were you comfortable in the wheelchair? How did your body feel?
  • What was the most difficult thing you had to do while in the wheelchair?
  • What tasks were impossible to do without help?
  • How did you feel about asking for help?
  • How did students (other than your classmates) treat you when you were in the wheelchair?
  • Was there ever a moment when you wished to be out of the wheelchair? When? Why?
  • When you went to specials (PE, music, etc.), how was it different?
  • Was it easy or difficult to work at your desk? Why?
  • Were you able to open doors? Was it difficult?
  • Describe any challenges or frustrations you had at lunch.
  • Describe any challenges or frustrations you had at recess.
  • Did it take you longer to get things done while in the wheelchair? Share an example.
  • If we had a disabled student with a wheelchair in our class, what changes should we make to our classroom?
  • If you could build a better school, what changes would you make for disabled people?
  • What have you learned from this experience?
  • Have you changed the way you think about people in wheelchairs? If so, how?

The preparation phase creates awareness of environmental elements not designed or maintained to support the needs of people with disabilities. The concepts of “accessibility” and “accommodation” gain context and become meaningful terms that inspire advocacy for corrective action.


Using the Americans with Disabilities Acts Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities (ADAAG) website, students determine on-site barriers to accessibility. Parking, exterior and interior paths of travel, ground surfaces, slopes and grades, level changes at doorways, door widths including latch-side clearance, door hardware, door pressure, door-pull force, hardware, table height, and reach height are assessed. Arm and hand strength, and dexterity are additional considerations. With this information, students create a report for school administrators on current conditions and solutions, noting violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Students participate in documenting their experiences in the wheelchair with camera and video: two students are videographers each day, and two students are photographers each day. The photos and video footage become an educational video that supplements the students’ presentation to school administration where they request answers for noncompliance.

Although only a few people carelessly park in the handicapped space, students noticed it and purchased an additional sign to place beneath the handicapped parking space, indicating “No student drop-off or pickup; NO deliveries.” They also created “parking tickets” to remind violators.


Students describe and depict an idea for a helpful invention—an adaptive technology— based on their experience in the wheelchair. Their ideas included:

  • Extensions to reach high places, pencil sharpeners, cabinets, etc.
  • Umbrellas for rainy weather
  • A robotic leg to kick a ball
  • Four-wheel drive for hikes and walks
  • A computer attached to a wheelchair
  • Water bottle/cup holder
  • Padding for arm rests
  • Lunch tray carrier
  • Table extension

For further reflection, students interacted with someone with a disability. Larry Qualtere, a local, shared with students his story of a swimming accident he had as a teen resulting in his need for a wheelchair and other adaptive technologies. He told them he could perform most activities, although it takes longer. He mentioned he needed to figure out ways to:

  • Shower
  • Brush his teeth
  • Hold things
  • Sign his name
  • Eat sandwiches, pick up his glasses
  • Drive
  • Use a cell phone, camera, computer
  • Play darts, video games, fish, hunt

Students were curious about the adaptive technologies Larry used to compensate for the paralysis in his fingers. He showed them:

  • A special cup he can pick up
  • A puff and sip mechanism that helps with different actions
  • A red ball used with the back of his hand for the computer

He brought photos of items in his home:

  • A lever on the door handle with a rope to pull the door closed
  • A remote to lock and unlock the front door
  • An electrical box with sixteen numbers so he can turn on lights, the fan, air conditioner, radio, and more

When Larry asked students for questions, they were well prepared for meaningful dialogue.

Student: “Are you comfortable in a wheelchair?”

Larry: “My back gets stiff. I have an air cushion in the chair that prevents sores.”

Student: “Was it hard to open our school doors?”

Larry: “No. Doors are heavy. Eight pounds is the pressure for exterior doors. It often happens that I can’t open doors. When I was visiting a friend, I got stuck in a small room for half an hour because it had only a door knob.”

Student: “Do you have an upstairs?”

Larry: “Yes. I go out the first floor and up on the outside to a door to the upper floor.”

Student: “Is it easy to drive?”

Larry: “Yes, but tricky!”

Student: “Have you met anyone else who is disabled?”

Larry: “Yes, I visit people who’ve just had accidents to give them hope and inspire them.”

Larry also shared perspective he gained from living with a disability:

  • Life is important.
  • Be glad people look out for you.
  • Be careful; think before you do things.
  • Life can be hard for anyone; it’s all about positive attitude.
  • It’s no fun to give up.
  • Other people can give you ideas.

Students accompanied him to his van, which he entered independently via a ramp at the back of the van. He moved to the driver’s seat and spoke with them from the window before leaving.

Student Journal Excerpts

  • “It looked like fun for all the kids, and I couldn’t wait for my turn.”
  • “If I had to do it all the time, it wouldn’t be fun. When you have to go fast, your arms hurt. Your legs hurt from not being able to move.”
  • “I watched my friends play in the snow and because I was in a wheelchair, I couldn’t participate.”
  • “I felt so helpless. Even though I didn’t want to bother anyone, I had to. I was embarrassed.”
  • “We shouldn’t laugh at others—not just people in wheelchairs. It teaches you how to be nicer.”
  • “It helps with feelings.”

Student essays excerpts:

  • “If I could build a new school, I would add automatic doors everywhere. The doors are big, heavy, and difficult to open. I learned to be thankful for being able to walk. I never realized how hard it would be to get around in a wheelchair. I never really thought about people in wheelchairs before this, but I am aware of them now. Their disabilities are hard enough, yet they have so many challenges just getting around. I think we should do more to make our schools and towns easier for people with disabilities.”
  • “When I was going to the library, I noticed lots of kids staring at me. I saw a few of them giggling, too. I think they were laughing at me. I wished I could get out of the wheelchair and just walk to the library instead. During music, I had to park my wheelchair on the stage while everyone else sat on the steps. I felt all alone up there, and it was not much fun. I didn’t feel like singing. I thought it would be easy to work at my desk, but I couldn’t fit my legs and wheels under there. It was very frustrating. Thanks to my friends, I was able to get my cafeteria tray to the table. Without their help, I would have spilled my food on my lap. Sadly, I couldn’t fit in at the table with my friends and had to eat on the end. It was a very difficult way to eat. Plus, everything took much longer to get done, even just finding things in my desk.”

During the Disabilities Awareness project, students experience more than physical navigation challenges. When accessibility is not possible, they experience the lack of integration and inclusion—the inability to participate that creates social isolation. These experiences motivate and inform their advocacy work. Students learn about the processes and skills that combine to create change in their world. Encounters with people who are meeting the challenges of living with disabilities can additionally inspire them to believe in their capabilities to meet their own challenges.


All student essays get published in a special commemorative book. Sharing the project at an assembly allows younger students to anticipate and older students to reflect on their encounters with disability.

Our local ILC offered a pizza party to thank the students for their work. The students chose instead to put the money that would have been spent on the party into an account that would be used for future accessibility projects. The ILC also donated an item the students had identified in their project work: an accessible doorbell for the main entrance to the school.

Project Outcomes

  • New accessible playground equipment
  • Accessible cafeteria tables
  • Improved signage
  • Doorbell for those who cannot open the front door
  • Annual remediation of violations of the ADAAG (assessed by students)
  • Growing awareness of disability etiquette and advocacy evidenced in the school culture
  • Campaign by students to spread awareness throughout central New York via posters, billboards, and radio spots in coordination with the County Office of Emergency Services and the local ILC
  • Two college education majors adopted the project at our local university, compiling photos and data on the condition of the “accessible campus.” Their presentation for deans, professors, and assorted staff produced great response and prompted repairs around campus. Since then, these students have presented the project and outcomes twice a year to other education majors.
  • The project has been adopted by schools in Alaska, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Texas, affecting approximately 1,500 students.

Disciplines Incorporated

  • English Language Arts
  • Mathematics, Science, and Technology
  • Social Studies
  • Career Development and Occupational Studies
  • Health, Physical Education, and Home Economics
  • Arts


From teachers:

  • “We can talk and read about it, but nothing can replace the experience.”
  • “The project is becoming part of the culture of the school.”

From a parent:

  • “We honor the handicapped by providing “handicapped access” and support services, but this project develops heightened awareness and sensitivity at a much deeper level.”

From a person with a disability:

  • “I think it’s good for students to be more aware of problems facing people with disabilities. The world in a wheelchair is a very difficult place. There are a lot of laws helping the disabled, but until you have to deal with that world, you don’t know how inaccessible things can be.”

From ILC staff:

  • “This project promotes tolerance and understanding. It significantly plants the seed of tolerance.”
  • “The project is an excellent opportunity to show students what it’s like to have a disability. When members of the organization come to talk about the Americans with Disabilities Act, it will make sense to them now that they have seen the barriers.”
  • “Elementary school is the best time to instill awareness of disabilities; it creates a lasting impression.”
  • “I think this is really a great project, and I would so love to see it make its way around to all the schools in the nation as a whole!”
  • “Educating the students through this experience will accomplish more in the way of a totally inclusive, accessible environment than any bill or law has ever had the power to do. The experience is sure to change anyone who participates in it. Turning sympathy into empathy is the key to move our next generation of lawmakers, code enforcers, business owners and even homeowners who will have the foresight to make their homes accessible long before they may ever need it to be.”


Local ILC staff identified a significant need: to boost the employment rate of young adults with disabilities in our community. The framework for a possible middle school service learning project to address this need follows.


Staff from our ILC talk with students about the current high unemployment rate after graduation for those with disabilities in our community; students learn that the ILC needs support to help students with disabilities prepare during high school for the transition to employment.


The suggestion of the ILC staff member was to create lifelines of people with disabilities who are or were successfully employed and how they achieved this. Inspirational quotes could be included. The purpose is to provide inspiring examples to students with disabilities in middle school and help them identify employment goals and structure their studies through high school to achieve their goal. This provides sufficient time to develop skills and to give focus to their work leading to graduation.

Our ILC educator could help identify successfully employed individuals with disabilities from the community for middle school students to interview. If this project were part of the K–12 service learning model, students nationwide could add local research to a national pool of information. This larger body of examples could then be broken down by specific disabilities. The local ILC educator could then direct students to gather examples of specific disabilities based on current needs in the community each year, thereby increasing relevancy.


Student reflections on this project would build on their reflections in the Disabilities Awareness program.


Student-created lifelines could be posted on a bulletin board and, afterward, be given to the special education department for ongoing use. A school-wide assembly, perhaps during Disabilities Awareness Month, would provide opportunity to honor those interviewed, supporting the integration of people with disabilities into the larger community. In an ongoing service learning curriculum, students with disabilities could look forward to be honored as they work toward successful employment after graduation.

Other projects under the topic of disabilities in my database explore blindness, deafness, and physical conditions related to aging that require problem solving and adaptation. There are models for buddy relationships based on tutoring, assistance with living and work-related skills, and physical education. Certain projects foster inclusion in activities such as cheerleading, proms, and programs in music and dance that draw out creative expression.

One thought on “Fourth Grade: Disabilities Awareness

  1. Thank you Ms. McKane for showcasing our program. It has been extremely successful and replicated in many schools. The staff of Catskill Center for Independence are happy to work with anyone wishing to replicate the program in their community.
    Chris Zachmeyer, Executive Director

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s