Differences Day Helps Children Develop Empathy

   What is it like to carry a lunch tray while using a wheelchair? Can you play tag if you are visually impaired? What does it feel like to have a speech impediment?

Sometimes, walking in another child’s shoes is all it takes to help children understand differences, and take a step towards empathy. That’s why the Katonah Lewisboro Special Education PTA (SEPTA) sponsors Differences Day for students in second and fifth grades. This year, Differences Day took place at Meadow Pond Elementary School on Nov. 2, at Increase Miller Elementary on Nov. 3, and at Katonah Elementary on Nov. 4.

Each second and fifth grade student spent a session in the school gymnasium, rotating through a series of hands-on activities designed to simulate visual, auditory, speech and motor impairments, as well as learning differences. At one station, they tried on goggles that simulate visual impairment; at another they did puzzles while wearing gloves that evoke fine motor skills challenges. They also tried to carry a lunch tray while navigating in a wheelchair.

Station activities are facilitated by parent volunteers. Students from John Jay High School’s A World of Difference club help at one school each year—this year at Increase Miller Elementary School.

Differences Day is unique to the Katonah-Lewisboro School District. It was created in 2000 by a team of SEPTA parents with input from Katonah-Lewisboro special services staff. The workshop has been run by SEPTA each year, with additional sponsorship from the elementary school PTAs and the Office of Special Services.

“The Differences Day experience leaves a powerful imprint on both students and staff members,” said Cindy Greenberg, KLSD Elementary Supervisor of Special Education. “To see student’s engaged in these activities and to hear their comments about levels of difficulty in achieving the task is profound. It is an important program supporting our goal to make all students accepted and appreciated for both their strengths and differences.”

SEPTA is careful not to have a rigid definition of special needs. While the group offers advocacy and support for families and children with autism or physical challenges, it also works with children who miss extended class time due to an injury or illness or those who need emotional or behavioral support.

“Just because a child doesn’t have a specific diagnosis or classification doesn’t mean that he or she isn’t struggling in some way,” said Michelle Christie, co-president of SEPTA. "SEPTA is not just for specific kids. It's for all kids.” Its non-competitive sports program, Rising Stars, is open to all children.