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A Normal Life

Disabilities Week at Hanover Central Middle School

Middle school is an age when “mean” often seems the norm.  During Disability Awareness Week, educators throughout the school addressed various disability topics to increase students awareness and empathy for others who may be different.   

Several topics and activities captured the undivided attention of students.  Teacher Mel Reyes, shared a 13-minute film created by her eldest daughter, Sydney, a student at Purdue University who is currently studying abroad.  The film, “A Normal Life,” takes a very close look at what life has been, and continues to be for the Reyes family.  Claire, the youngest child of Robert and Mel Reyes, is an autistic, 17-year-old Senior at Crown Point High School with an easy smile and quick laugh.   Because Clair is non-verbal and can’t tell her Mom when someone is mean to her, or even why she’s feeling sad, Mrs. Reyes has sent her daughter off to school every day of her life never knowing what happened during the day.  In the film Mrs. Reyes explains how hard that has been and how hard it continues to be. 

students in auditorium

6th graders wathch a documentary created by Sydney Reyes, entitled:  "A Normal Life."

Mrs. Reyes wanted all of the students who saw the film to take away the message that kindness matters.  “I can remember the first time I had someone be very mean to me.  I was in a party store, getting party supplies for Claire's older sister’s birthday and she (Claire) wasn’t having it, but it was something I had to do because the party was coming up.  She was maybe 3 or 4 and it was awful.  It was bad, but it was a party store,” recalls Mrs. Reyes of a more than decade old incident that is still obviously painful.  “I had someone come up to me and say, ‘Why can’t you control your own child?  Why is she screaming?  She’s disrupting the whole store.’  I was in tears, it was my baby and she was in a pretty little dress, and it was my baby that this person was talking about.”  

woman speaking to group

Teacher Mel Reyes talks to students about her daughter, Claire. 

The video pays close attention to those closest to Claire including her Mom and Dad, sister, care giver, and teacher.  In the video Mrs. Reyes is also clear that through a great deal of strength she has made sure that the life of the Reyes’ family “isn’t all about this (Claire’s autism).”  Through love, kindness and determination, the family has embraced their very “normal life.”

Mrs. Reyes took questions after the film and there were many.  While students were sometimes reluctant to be the first to ask a question, once they began the questions came quickly.  The students were curious but respectful and showed an amazing capacity for kindness. 

boy on dizzy disc

6th grader, Ashton Verbish tries to use the "dizzy disc," that Claire Reyes uses daily to help with her hypo sensitivity needs.

“This was difficult to do,” said Mrs. Reyes.  “I’m so protective of her (Claire) and I am always surprised by how often students don’t realize that their teachers are human too.  That they struggle with their own problems and that simply being kind can have a huge impact on someone’s life.”  The film, "A Normal Life," created by Sydney Reyes can be viewed at the following link.

Upstairs in Ms. Mooney’s 5th grade classroom a different type of disability was being studied.  ASL, or American Sign Language, is a widely accepted and used as the language of deaf individuals in the United States and most of Canada.  “But it isn’t just people who are hard of hearing who use the language,” explained Ms. Mooney.  “There are a number of disabilities, like Cerebral Palsy that can make it difficult for people to speak, so even though they can hear they often use ASL to speak.” 

woman holding up a finger

Teacher Kassandra Mooney teaches the basics of ASL to her students.

Students quickly learned the alphabet, and moved on to easy conversations, like learning how to introduce themselves and offer a greeting.  From there the students learned to count and to identify colors.  Very quickly, they were able to establish the foundation for a real conversation.  In less than an hour students were able to tell each other their names, offer a brief greeting, tell each other how old they are and express which color is their favorite and which they like the least.  

students using sign language

Student learned the basics of ASL language quickly.

ASL is a language that uses the entire body to express emotions and language.  Many times students would point out to Ms. Mooney that some signs look alike.  She was pleased that they were engaged and noticed and explained that if they were involved in a conversation with someone who uses ASL, they would be able to tell from the context of the conversation which sign they were using. 

Ms. Mooney took 3 years of ASL as a foreign language at Purdue Calumet.  “I love the language and love the different environments in which it applies,” she said.  “I love teaching it to my students, because it’s very important for them to know that communication can be a stumbling block to understanding a disability.  I can give them the tools to overcome that block.”

two girls talking using ASL

Students have a conversation with each other using ASL

There were moments of lighthearted fun as Ms. Mooney found it necessary to repeatedly remind the students that they needed to sign away from their faces and bodies…”If you don’t you’re just talking to yourself.” 

Disability Awareness week covered many topics in many classes, but the examples set by Mrs. Reyes and Ms. Mooney offered limitless possibilities for students to grow and understand disabilities and to model kindness.