Before I started teaching (24 years ago), parents in my school system started the "Just Like Me" program to teach children about physical challenges such as hearing impairment, blindness, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities and now autism and aspergers. Parents rallied together to impart information to students in developmentally appropriate ways to raise awareness and knowledge.
Year after year, volunteers have come to fourth grade classes to share this knowledge. Speakers who have each challenge also come to share their experiences and wisdom with students. Students gain invaluable insight into each challenge area. They have the opportunity to learn about the challenge by watching videos, listening to expert presentations, engaging in hands-on activities, and hearing a speaker who lives with the specific challenge.
Our school system supports the program by providing a stipend for a Just Like Me coordinator. The coordinator arranges speakers, volunteers, and necessary equipment/spaces. The coordinator also works with the school system to create a schedule.
Now with the focus on anti-bullying, the program seems more important than ever. Often bullying is caused by ignorance. Our students have the opportunity to be informed about the challenges many people face. I believe that opportunity minimizes bullying, creates understanding, and develops empathy. This program is a keeper, and I'm grateful to those who make it happen.