On Wednesday Nov. 7, six students gathered in the Willow Field Elementary School library to give a presentation before nearly 40 parents, teachers, administrators and peers.
This was no ordinary presentation, and these were no ordinary students. The students — four high schoolers (Kris Grobsmith, whose resource teacher is Chris Spring; Jeanna Bayley and Lexi Eddington, whose resource teacher is Pam Casamento; and Brianna Burns, whose resource teacher is Julie Spillett), a seventh-grader (Jeremy Corsaro, whose resource teacher is John Sheridan) and a sixth-grader (Marissa Brockway, whose resource teacher is Sue McDonald) — each have a learning disability. They had come to speak to the Liverpool Central School District’s Special Education Parent-Teacher Organization about their disabilities and to give advice to parents, teachers and students on learning with a disability.
The Liverpool schools host a presentation like this every year. Students from all levels typically speak at a school and tell “typical” students what it’s like to try to learn with a disability. This is the first time the group has spoken before the Special Ed PTO. The Special Ed PTO was formed last year by LCSD Board of Education member Dee Perkins, whose son, Taylor, a seventh-grader at Soule Road Middle, is autistic. It invites speakers to advise parents and teachers on students with special needs and meets every other month.
The event was organized by Pam Casamento and Chris Spring from Liverpool High School.
Topics discussed included different learning styles, alternative programs like BOCES and hardships for the students.
One activity involved two volunteers — a parent and another student in the audience — receiving a long list of instructions and having to comply with them without them being repeated. The task, the volunteers agreed, was almost impossible.
“How would you feel if you felt this way every day, every time you tried to follow oral directions?” Casamento said. “This exercise was designed to let you know what it’s like every time a teacher gives oral directions for a disabled student.”
Casamento said the activity demonstrated how difficult it can be for a disabled student to process oral instructions, especially if they’re given at the end of class.
“It’s all shouted at them at the last minute,” Casamento said. “Anything over two or three directions is difficult for any of us to remember.”
The students each offered pieces of advice for their peers, parents and teachers. All of the students advised teachers and parents to take the time to answer kids’ questions and to allow them all the time they need to accomplish something.
“Don’t get frustrated with them,” Burns said. “Make sure to slow it down and take all the time they need to understand.”
The students had more specific advice for their peers with disabilities.
Grobsmith advised finding a student in the class who comprehends the material well.
“I’d sit next to them and try to pay attention as best I could,” he said, “but if I missed something, I could tap the kid on the shoulder and ask, ‘What’d she say?’ And they could explain it to me. It made it so much easier for me.”
Brockway said that teachers, parents and students should try to educate themselves on the disability as best they can.
“Try to understand your disability,” she said. “If I didn’t know what my disability was, I would have given up a long time ago.”
“Don’t let your disability stop you from what you want to do,” she said. “Don’t ever give up, and don’t let anybody put you down. Just do your best, do your work and you’ll succeed.”
Burns also said students with disabilities should see their disability as a gift, not a hindrance.
“It gets you one more thing to look forward to accomplishing, like graduating high school,” she said.
Some of the students took the opportunity to offer personal thanks.
“As I’ve struggled through the years with my disability, I’ve realized how supportive my mom has been for me,” Eddington said. “I remember the nights that my mom would stay up late with me in elementary school and give up her time to help me struggle with my homework. I think her helping me back then gave me more confidence and independence today. Mom, even though you’re embarrassing, I still love you.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.