WENATCHEE — Columbia Elementary School students spent time last week talking about what they had for dinner — or trying to talk about it.
A marshmallow pushed to the roof of their mouth and held in place with their tongue made “spaghetti and meatballs” sound like something else entirely.
“Was that hard?” asked Allison Bureau, founder of The IDEA (Interactive Disability Education Awareness) Project, a nonprofit designed to educate students about differences and different abilities in a way that creates understanding and empathy.
The second-graders in the rotation answered a resounding “yes.”
“Now you understand what it feels like for someone who has a harder time with speech,” Bureau said. “You know how frustrating it can be for them.”
The marshmallow test was part of a series of activities Bureau uses to give students an idea of what it would be like to have a physical or learning disability. With help from a slew of volunteers, students also tackled zipping a jacket, holding a pencil and picking up coins from a table while wearing ski gloves to see what it would be like for those who have difficulty with fine motor skills. Completing a maze and writing a sentence while looking only in a mirror demonstrated what it’s like for those who have trouble processing information. Trying to read a sentence of jumbled words and moving letters replicated what it might be like for those with learning disabilities. An introduction to Braille and a sensory-overload experiment that included noise-canceling headphones and a feather duster also presented a different perspective.
Those activities and more were part of a week-long, all-school effort that started with assemblies introducing the idea that everyone is different and how that’s a good thing. Each classroom cycled through the stations in the days that followed to experience first-hand the challenges, frustrations and triumphs faced by those with disabilities and discuss how a little understanding goes a long way.
“We talk about behavior and why it might seem strange or different, but we explain why it’s happening,” Bureau said. “Once the kids understand why, it’s not strange or different. It just is. They get it.”
Bureau, who grew up in Wenatchee and lives in Maple Valley, started what is now The IDEAProject when her son with special needs was in kindergarten. At first, she simply talked to his classmates about his differences, why he had trouble speaking and how he used the tablet as his voice. She added the marshmallow activity and a video that showed what he could accomplish with the help of the tablet the next year.
“When we got done with it, it was like the light bulbs went off for them,” she said. Rather than excluding him from activities, his classmates started fighting over who got to play with him and sit with him at lunch.
“From that point forward, school changed for him,” she said.
She was invited to make presentations in the classrooms of other students with disabilities and eventually to the entire school, expanding her talk to cover all kinds of disabilities and differences.
After consulting with speech, occupational and physical therapists, she then created programs for different grade levels, all focused on building understanding and empathy through education and explanation.
Since 2013, she has presented The IDEA Project in 19 school districts, now including Wenatchee. She also does teacher trainings.
Columbia Principal Si Stuber learned about the program through Trish Craig, the district’s special education director.
“I thought it would be a good idea to increase empathy and understanding here at Columbia Elementary,” he said. “We hope that students will develop an understanding that we all have differences and this is what makes us unique and special. We also hope that our students will gain a better understanding and empathy for students with a disability. And we hope that our students will grow in their kindness to others.”