“I have a surprise for you,” Diedre Parkhurst said to her fourth graders. “We’re going to watch a video and someone you know is in it.”
“Hi, my name is Eli and I’m a fourth grader at KES,” said the boy on the screen. He was also sitting three rows back by the windows!
The students' attention was riveted on their classmate's conversation with Stephen Lawler, a two-time Paralympic champion skier who is in a wheelchair. The interview was part of Differences Days, the annual program at Katonah which helps elementary students walk in other people’s shoes and take steps towards empathy. This year, the in-person program was recreated by parents Emma Cabaness and Gia Miller as a buffet of options which teachers can choose from over two weeks.
Meeting a Paralympian
first person insights
On the screen, Eli explained that the Paralympics are Olympics for athletes with disabilities. “I bet you’re wondering why Stevo is in a wheelchair and how he can ski. Let’s find out.”
Through the frank conversation that ensued, children stepped into Stevo’s shoes—in this case, sit-skiing in a monoski, and learned a little about what it felt like to be there.
Stevo told Eli that he was born with spina bifida, a condition that caused him to be paralyzed from the knees down. He joked about life in a wheelchair, saying he always has a seat at the table, but also made the point that others often assume he needs help.
“Don’t assume someone with a disability needs help,” said Stevo. “Ask them. Most of us can do quite a bit.”
“Do you have any advice for people with differences,” asked Eli.
“Find the thing that you’re into and get out there and do it!” said Stevo.
An opportunity to learn
A jumping off point for discussion
Class conversation picked up where the video ended. “What did you learn from Stevo?” asked Mrs. Parkhurst.
“When you meet people with differences, just think of them as normal human beings," said Kaitlyn.
“Find something you like to do and do it,” said Tessa.
“Even if it’s not visible, like a wheelchair, we all have differences,” said Eli.