Teacher encourages curiosity, respect about disabilities

Students in Chris Cook’s fourth-grade class at May Watts Elementary in Naperville, Illinois celebrate with him after his first Disability Awareness Month assembly, in which he answered student questions about living with cerebral palsy. Daniel White, Staff Photographer, Chicago Daily Herald

Marie Wilson, Chicago Daily Herald October 25, 2017

It’s not every day an elementary teacher sits in front of a gym full of screaming kids and quiets them by answering questions about his personal life.

But Chris Cook, who teaches fourth grade at May Watts Elementary in Indian Prairie Unit District 204, shared his out-of-school existence to promote the cause about which he feels the most passionate.

“Do you think it’s unfair that you have a disability?” one student asked after watching a nine-minute video Cook created for the school’s first Wolverines Disability Awareness Month.

“Most definitely,” he said, with a serious tone. Then he turned the question around. Cook asked the students if anything unfair ever has happened to them.

To a rousing “yes” from the crowd, the 30-year-old in his third year at May Watts answered with equal enthusiasm.

“We have something in common!” he exclaimed. “We can be friends!”

Cook, who has been a vocal advocate for people with disabilities throughout growing up and living with cerebral palsy, explained some facts about disabilities to promote inclusion and understanding. At the end of his talk to the squirming crowd, he asked all May Watts students to sign a pledge: “As a respectful, responsible and safe Wolverine, I pledge to be empathetic and supportive toward those with disabilities.”

For the elementary school crowd, respect, empathy and support can begin with friendship, he said. And it can begin with students doing their job, which is to grow – both in knowledge and as people.

“The quickest way to grow in your brain is to befriend someone who is different from you,” Cook said. “My rule of thumb is we are open and accepting to everyone.”

Cook said he approached the Naperville school’s principal and student services coordinator with a disability awareness idea he wanted to start small, but with a big message: The word “disability” is something of a misnomer.

“It’s not about what you can’t do,” he said. “It’s about what you can do differently.”

Educators had students watch a video Cook produced about what it means to live with a disability. Afterward, classes submitted questions, some of them blunt.

Erin Rodriguez, student services coordinator, said one first-grader asked, “What’s wrong with you?” So teachers got the chance to explain a more respectful way to approach the question.

“It allowed us teachable moments,” Rodriguez said.

The video shows Cook getting around the school using a walker or forearm crutches as he explains that having a disability can be better described as being “differently abled.” It’s not that people with disabilities can’t do things like walk or go to work, but that they must use supports and find workarounds.

Cook doesn’t drive, so he said he plans ahead and has a network of others willing to drive for him. He falls from time to time when the floor is slippery, so he got physical and occupational therapy to learn how to get up.

“He made it clear how he’s trained to the point he knows how to fall correctly,” Principal Brian LeCrone said.

Cook has shared that training with co-workers before, offering tips on when to help – and when not to help– people with disabilities get around a school environment.

Example: In a doorway. Someone using a walker will lean on the door for support while pulling it open. So someone on the other side pushing or pulling can knock them off balance.

With a physical disability, Cook said it’s clear: “I operate differently from others in this room,” he said. “For other folks with disabilities, this is not the case.”

The differences aren’t immediately apparent among people with a stutter or a sensitivity to noise, trouble managing emotions or poor vision, he said.

Since Cook couldn’t get to every student question in a 40-minute assembly, he told kids he’d be answering more online from his Twitter handle, @MrCookSchool. Then he left the kids with one more piece of wisdom.

It can be tempting, he said, to point and laugh at someone who is different. But that’s not the best approach.

“Instead of looking and giggling, ask a question,” he said. “There is a power in being curious.”

Source Chicago Daily Herald

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