Shortly after Linwood Howe Elementary’s PTA formed the first-ever Special Needs Committee* in Culver City, the school’s leadership seized on the opportunity to further educate the students about all kinds of disabilities, including physical, emotional and learning, by celebrating Disability Awareness Month in October.
“Lin Howe is proud to teach and support students who have disabilities of all kinds, both in regular and specialized classrooms,” said school principal Dr. Kim Indelicato. “Our new Special Needs Committee planned multiple events designed to increase disability awareness among all of our students, and further integrate our entire student body.”
Throughout the month during the school’s morning assembly, Dr. Indelicato presented information to the 545 students about famous people with disabilities. These included blind legendary singer Stevie Wonder, deaf classical music composer Ludwig von Beethoven, and mathematical genius Albert Einstein, who was autistic.
In mid-October, Lin Howe hosted Infinite Flow: A Wheelchair Dance Company, for a school-wide assembly.
“Imagine if you woke up one day and couldn’t walk,” said Marisa Hamamoto, founder, CEO and artistic director of Infinite Flow. “Well that happened to me.” Marisa suffered from Spinal Cord Infarction, a severe neurological disease which laid her paralyzed from the neck down, but from which she eventually recovered. After that experience, she founded Infinite Flow, whose dancers include both those with wheelchairs and those without, to show students first-hand that a disability does not have to limit a person’s potential — it just means that they’ll do some things differently.
“Everything can be translated,” said Infinite Flow dancer Mia Schaikewitz, who is paralyzed from the waist down due to a ruptured spinal cord. “I don’t let the wheelchair stop me. It’s not a showstopper.” But the group’s dances are – they performed multiple numbers, including a salsa, and the famous title dance from “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Several students were invited up on stage to meet the dancers and ask them questions, which ranged from “What is your favorite food?” to “What do you do when you are not dancing?”
Lin Howe PTA paid for part of the assembly, and CCUSD contributed the rest of the money. “We are so grateful to the district for supporting Lin Howe’s Special Needs Committee, and helping us celebrate Disability Awareness Month by bringing Infinite Flow to our school,” said PTA Special Needs Committee co-Chair Lindsay Crain. “One of the things we are teaching our students is that we cannot assume someone can’t do something because they have a disability. We saw that with Infinite Flow, and I see that every day as I work with our kids.”
Culminating the month-long celebration of Disability Awareness Month, teachers brought disability awareness into their classrooms with speakers and stories. Dr. Indelicato, school psychologist Amy Katkov, and parent volunteers visited classrooms to read an age-appropriate book to the TK through 3rd graders, or show a video to the 4th and 5th graders, related to kids and disabilities. The speakers, together with the Infinite Flow dance assembly, sparked conversations with students about what disabilities are. They talked about how some disabilities, such as being in a wheelchair are more visible than others, such as difficulty learning to read.
“We had great conversations with the students during our classroom visits,” said Dr. Indelicato. “Children of all ages are really perceptive. They understand why kids who have disabilities need extra support to learn and to have fun at school. They recognize that these kids are like any other kids — they have likes and dislikes, they want to have friends, they want to feel smart and capable. Our teachers reinforced the message that kids who have disabilities should be treated just like anybody else — with kindness and respect.”
“Our goal is to do more than just explain disabilities,” said Lindsay Crain, who was one of the classroom speakers, and is the parent of a special needs student at Lin Howe. “It’s about our reaction and understanding that a disability is only part of a person. I told our students that some of the brightest kids I know don’t use their voices to speak, don’t use their legs to walk. But they understand everything – they just may have to do things differently. I also encouraged the kids to say hello to someone they’ve never spoken to, and to become leaders with their actions. They may not be best friends with everyone, but they can be kind to anyone.”
After the classroom visits, students began speaking up about their own disabilities, including some that are not so obvious. One student raised his hand and said, “I have dyslexia,” a fact that none of his fellow students knew until then.
Lin Howe’s Special Needs Committee has many more plans in the works revolving around the larger message of unity, compassion and tolerance. “Our efforts have been so well received in the two months since our inception,” said Crain. “We can already tell we are making an impact.”
“I am so impressed with everything that the Special Needs Committee has accomplished in such a short time, and the positive impact that it has had within our school community,” said Kathy Johnson, Linwood Howe’s PTA President. “I discuss our Special Needs Committee at every Culver City Council PTA meeting, and receive an overwhelmingly positive response each time. I truly hope that we will be a great model and lead the way for all Culver City PTAs to create their own Special Needs Committees at their respective schools.”
* In September 2106, members of Linwood Howe’s PTA voted to form a Special Needs Committee—the first of its kind within CCUSD and within the Thirty-Third District PTA, which encompasses Malibu to Long Beach. The committee’s mission is to bring together parents of special needs children for mutual support, education, and sharing of resources; to communicate openly with Lin Howe staff, parents, and students about the challenges facing children with special needs; and to foster an environment of compassion, acceptance, and inclusion.