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Water's Edge Elementary Celebrates Disability with 'Day of Inclusion'
October 31, 2013
Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Dozens of hands popped up when Alli Gootner, who has Tourette's syndrome, invited questions about her disability from fifth-graders at Water's Edge Elementary School [in Boca Raton, Florida].
Does it hurt? Was she born with it? Is it contagious? Can she control it?
Gootner, 18, a recent graduate of West Boca High School, was born with Tourette's, which forces involuntary bodily movements such as eye-blinking, throat-clearing, shoulder-shrugging or jumping. The disorder is controlled with medication as well as other techniques, such as meditation and relaxation.
It does hurt sometimes, Gootner said, when her neck keeps jerking. She said fellow students mocked her in middle school, but by the time she got to high school, she cared less about her peers' comments.
"People looked at me like I was a freak," Gootner said. "You need to learn not to care if you're being bullied."
Gootner was one of eight Palm Beach County high school students or recent graduates to talk about their impairments at Water's Edge's "Day of Inclusion," a morning for students to learn about the real experiences of [teens with disabilities]. Young people with autism, attention-deficit disorder, muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, blindness and deafness also addressed the students, who were in third, fourth and fifth grades.
Like a growing number of Palm Beach County public schools, Water's Edge includes students with disabilities in typical classrooms instead of keeping them together in special clusters. One or two classes in each grade are "inclusion classrooms," with specialists coming through each day to help the [students]with occupational therapy, tutoring or other assistance, said Adriana Gonzalez, the school's exceptional student education coordinator.
Lisa DelPozzo, a sign language instructor at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, organized the morning, the second day of inclusion she has offered to an elementary school. She said she thought of the idea as part of her master's thesis and hopes to bring it to more of Palm Beach County's schools.
"It's powerful for the kids to see someone stand up and say, 'I'm different,' " DelPozzo said. "Once they are educated, they tend to include more."
Amanda Mostyn talked about life with Down syndrome, having few friends and a deep desire to be part of a group. Danni Rodriguez, a Spanish River High student, used a sign-language interpreter to share stories about life with profound deafness. Students were awed by Thomas Ballegaard, a Boca Raton High School student who has muscular dystrophy, and his $20,000 wheelchair.
Jack Lebersfeld, 13, who is home-schooled, told the students about his Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. He said after the talk he was intrigued by the students' questions, especially why anyone would want to bully him.
Water's Edge fifth-grader Isabella Santovenia said she was deeply moved by Jack's presentation, especially his openness about being hassled by peers.
"It changed my way of how I see people with disabilities," said Santovenia, 10. "Some people think they're just weird, but if you think about it, it's not their fault."
Copyright © 2013, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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