Ben Lomond High peer counselors 'disabled' for a day

Feb 27 2012 - 12:08am

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Teacher Shelly Moss guides a “blind” Naftali Sanchez,16, through the Ben Lomond High School cafeteria on Thursday. Sanchez is wearing blacked-out goggles that block her sight so she can learn the challenges blind people face daily. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Victor Galindo pushes the wheelchair of fellow Ben Lomond High student Jasmine Ayala as she spends the day as a “paraplegic,” so she can experience the challenges disabled people face. “I used to think being in a wheelchair would be easy. Now I know better,” she says. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Jasmine Ayala, a student at Ben Lomond High School in Ogden, pushes herself in a wheelchair Thursday while simulating a disability during her school day in an effort to know what it is like to live with a disability. She mentors peers who have a disability. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Naftali Sanchez (left) eats lunch Thursday with the help of Jasmine Ayala at Ben Lomond High School in Ogden. Sanchez is wearing blacked-out goggles so she'll know what it is like to live with a disability. She mentors peers with disabilities.(MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Teacher Shelly Moss guides a “blind” Naftali Sanchez,16, through the Ben Lomond High School cafeteria on Thursday. Sanchez is wearing blacked-out goggles that block her sight so she can learn the challenges blind people face daily. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Victor Galindo pushes the wheelchair of fellow Ben Lomond High student Jasmine Ayala as she spends the day as a “paraplegic,” so she can experience the challenges disabled people face. “I used to think being in a wheelchair would be easy. Now I know better,” she says. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Jasmine Ayala, a student at Ben Lomond High School in Ogden, pushes herself in a wheelchair Thursday while simulating a disability during her school day in an effort to know what it is like to live with a disability. She mentors peers who have a disability. (MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)
Naftali Sanchez (left) eats lunch Thursday with the help of Jasmine Ayala at Ben Lomond High School in Ogden. Sanchez is wearing blacked-out goggles so she'll know what it is like to live with a disability. She mentors peers with disabilities.(MATTHEW ARDEN HATFIELD/Standard-Examiner)

OGDEN -- Neftali Sanchez waited in silence on a bench inside Ben Lomond High School, helpless to see the way to the school cafeteria.

"I'll be back for you," teacher Shelly Moss called to the 16-year-old, hurrying toward the lunch line to help Neftali's classmate, Jasmine Ayala, 15, who was struggling to move forward in her wheelchair.

A day before or after, both of Moss' students could have helped themselves. Neftali and Jasmine were participating in a daylong exercise to help them understand what the disabled students they mentor go through every day.

Jasmine had reached into a bowl of notes listing physical disabilities and had randomly drawn "paraplegia," or paralysis from the waist down.

"I was expecting it to be easy. It was just sitting down," Jasmine said.

"But my arm muscles are sore from moving the wheelchair, I couldn't fit under my desk and had to do work on my lap, and I haven't even tried to go to the bathroom yet.

"I used to think being in a wheelchair would be easy. Now I know better."

The peer-counselor exercise requires students to get to one class on their own; friends can help them get to the rest. Jasmine caught a break -- she got a friendly chair push from fellow tenth-grader Victor Galindo, 16.

"When I did this, my disability was, I couldn't speak," Victor said. "I had to walk around with a pencil and paper, and rely on notes and hand gestures. That was a lot harder than people would think.

"I'm an outgoing, talkative person. Being mute, I felt different and isolated. I felt lonely. It was stressful."

Neftali arrived with Moss, who had helped her "blind" student navigate the lunch line.

"The school seems much bigger, and I don't know where I am," said Neftali, wearing safety goggles "blacked out" with tape.

"I would be lost without the help of friends. In class, when teachers explain things and show students how to do them, I can't see. It must be hard for blind students to get around and to do their work."

Moss, a teacher for seven years, learned about the empathy exercise when she participated as a student at what is now BYU-Idaho.

Moss, a special-needs teacher for those with physical and cognitive disabilities, also works with peer counselors. She has been putting the student counselors through the empathy experience for about the past five years.

"My special-needs students love it, because they can start helping their peer tutors. They love helping the students who usually help them. It makes them laugh."

Peer counselors fill out a journal to help them with an oral or written report about their empathy experience and what it taught them.

"That really gets them thinking about the experience," Moss said.

A few years back, she had a peer-counselor student whose family life was changed by her experience.

"She had lived with a sister who had a disability her whole life," Moss said of her former student, who drew "no arms" and wore slings to mimic the disability.

"She went home sobbing because she never really understood what her sister, who had cerebral palsy, had to go through. They were so close, and my student had never really understood."

Another student's mother was afraid the exercise might interfere with classroom learning, so she had her child do the empathy exercise over the weekend.

"That mother was totally overwhelmed with the demands of taking care of a disabled child," Moss said. "It was a learning experience for both of them."

Other random disabilities students can get -- just like in real life -- include missing digits (mimicked by taping fingers or thumbs to palms), audio impairment (ears and mouth covered), hand amputation (hands are wrapped) and missing leg (leg is restrained, and crutches are used).

"Everyone wants to use the wheelchair," Moss said. "Guys, especially, think it will be fun to ride all day. No one wants to be blind."

Victor said he learned a lot from his experience being mute.

"I have a lot more respect now for what other people go through," he said.

"I try to be supportive and respectful. Disabled people have so many problems to put up with, it's no fair to disrespect them as well."

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