Seth Pangilinan and Taylor Baxter, sixth-graders at Terrace Elementary, attempt fine motor skill activities wearing gloves and mittens to simulate a disability of the hands. The exercise was part of an “Understanding Differences” workshop by Richardson ISD’s SAGE (Special and Gifted Education) program. Photo by Kim Leeson

Seth Pangilinan and Taylor Baxter, sixth-graders at Terrace Elementary, attempt fine motor skill activities wearing gloves and mittens to simulate a disability of the hands. The exercise was part of an “Understanding Differences” workshop by Richardson ISD’s SAGE (Special and Gifted Education) program. Photo by Kim Leeson

Imagine trying to learn in an environment where there are sudden loud noises, strange odors and a teacher who whispers instructions — this is what it is like every day for students with certain learning differences.

In 2011, Richardson ISD started a program called SAGE — Special and Gifted Education. It was a promising idea, one that aimed to facilitate communication and understanding between families and faculties regarding children with unique educational needs.

Unfortunately, it never really got off the ground.

But thanks to Alicia Post and a group of like-minded parents, SAGE has been given new life. In 2013, Post had been doing PTA leadership training and wanted to talk to someone about her son, who is autistic. She spoke to Liz Gluckman, the RISD Council of PTAs president. “She said there was no one in the role [for SAGE],” Post says. So Post was voted chairwoman. “We saw a need for it because there was no community for us,” she says.

“We want to create an environment where all kids are accepted. It’s hard when we aren’t aware what they go through.”
Sixth-grader Tiara Anderson struggles to reach a bean bag after being outfitted with a walker and leg restraints, one of several SAGE workshop exercises to teach empathy for students with disabilities. Photo by Kim Leeson

Sixth-grader Tiara Anderson struggles to reach a bean bag after being outfitted with a walker and leg restraints, one of several SAGE workshop exercises to teach empathy for students with disabilities. Photo by Kim Leeson

Now there are more than 200 parent members, and that number is growing. SAGE provides twice-monthly district-wide workshops for parents on topics such as dyslexia, giftedness, education rights and laws, and coping and stress management. Fourteen RISD schools now have a SAGE representative who is working to bring advocacy programs to their campus and the district as a whole.

One new SAGE program is Understanding Differences (UD), which shows participants what it may be like to have different impairments. In late January, Richardson Terrace Elementary became the first school to implement the UD program, followed in mid-February by Merriman Park Elementary. These schools set aside time to allow the entire student body and faculty to experience impairments in vision, hearing, motor skills and verbal communication.

In one segment of the UD program, students play a game of bingo. But in this game, the bingo caller is whispering, there is a loud static sound accompanied by other sudden noises, the children have itchy tags affixed to their collars, and someone is spraying a strong scent near them. Needless to say, it’s hard to focus on the bingo game. Children with autism or other conditions that cause sensory sensitivity deal with such distractions every day. The goal of the UD experience is to foster empathy among the students and faculty who can’t relate to the way some kids experience their surroundings. Rachel San Jose, the assistant principal at Richardson Terrace, says the faculty has been very supportive of the program. “We want to create an environment where all kids are accepted,” she says. “It’s hard when we aren’t aware what they go through.”

Post points out that empathy is the most effective deterrent to bullying. Rachel Chumney, a volunteer who acts as Post’s unofficial SAGE committee co-chair, agrees. “Compassion is a result of understanding,” she says. “And when we educate people, there’s a lot more understanding.”

Post says SAGE already has made a difference to many RISD families. “We see parents breathing a sigh of relief,” she says. “I see my own son flourishing.” Since there are about 9,400 students in the district who could be helped by SAGE programs, she says it’s important to get the word out about the group. “We want to make their lives as normal as we can,” she says.

Tiara Anderson and Connor Brawley, sixth graders at Richardson's Terrace Elementary, try to assemble puzzles while looking through goggles that simulate vision impairment.  The activity was part of an "Understanding Differences" workshop.  The event was an outreach of an RISD program called SAGE (Special and Gifted Education). Photo by Kim Leeson

Tiara Anderson and Connor Brawley, sixth graders at Richardson’s Terrace Elementary, try to assemble puzzles while looking through goggles that simulate vision impairment. The activity was part of an “Understanding Differences” workshop. The event was an outreach of an RISD program called SAGE (Special and Gifted Education). Photo by Kim Leeson