06/07/2013 05:22 EDT | Updated 08/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Teaching Children About the "Ability" in Disability

In order to embrace the ways in which others are different we have to realize the ways in which we are also the same.

When it comes to teaching our children about kids with disabilities, the notions of "connectedness" and "sameness" are essential and something we must foster as a society.

Through school, extra curricular activities and online interaction, kids today are incredibly connected to one another. So improving the quality of life for children with disabilities and their families reaches far beyond providing the most up-to-date therapies and learning strategies so they may achieve their individual potential.

It includes working to ensure typical kids, without these challenges, grow up with the understanding, empathy and patience needed to create a truly integrated society, one in which kids with disabilities are seen as equals in their network of peers.

They are not other. They are the same -- just with challenges.

How can we achieve that?

At the Zareinu Educational Centre, we believe that begins with creating opportunities for kids to experience first hand what life is like for their disabled peers.

Through interactive and hands-on learning opportunities, we can expose children to the specific challenges in ways that are still fun but very personal and meaningful.

We have created a Sensitization Pavilion at our annual Moveathon Festival. It is here, using stuffed animals to depict the range of disabilities facing children at the Zareinu Educational Centre, that children experience first-hand a day in the life of their peers with special needs. They each receive a physical restriction to mirror the disability assigned to their stuffed animal.

For example:

Cerebral Palsy: Compromised use of arms or legs by tying them together and adding weights to increase difficulty in use.

Down syndrome: Compromised balance by attaching pool noodles to their legs and weights on their arms.

ADHD: Decreased comfort and concentration by placing popcorn kernels in shoes and rough Velcro inside their shirts.

Vision Impairment: Limited sight through adapted glasses.

In half-hour intervals, they participate in classes, snack time, therapy and play-dates in a fun, interactive setting led by a range of professional therapists. All with this limited use in function in order to experience a day in the life for a child with special needs.

Music class allows them to see all kids enjoy music and can participate in some capacity.

Physiotherapy class allows them to see the time and effort it takes to build skills often taken for granted and that children with special needs can do many of the same activities they can, but adapted materials or support is needed. Sometimes, even the simplest of activities can be difficult and frustrating.

In the classroom they learn about different ways information can be taught and how some people speak through technology or use pictures or actions -- but that anything is possible with the right support.

For snack time they discover that different disabilities may impact experiences of food and eating and that certain tools might help kids eat more independently.

Through play date activities they learn that kids with special needs also like to play and enjoy the same toys.

The lessons learned in these fun activities are meant to stay with the kids -- and hopefully, when they go back to their programs, schools or camps they will give someone different than themselves a little more time, an extra hand or a smile they would not have before.

It's an important start for them to start seeing the abilities in kids with disabilities and to understand that even with notable differences, there are ways in which all kids are the same.

Lindsey Athias is a Senior Behaviour Therapist at the Zareinu Educational Centre in Toronto. The Moveathon Festival is Sunday, June 9 at Downsview Park in Toronto.