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You’re Not Like Me ... Or, Are You?
December 2008 | Piper Underwood


If nothing else, parents hope their children grow up to be kind, empathetic beings. At Del Mar Heights, children are learning these lessons through a one-of-a-kind program, the Understanding Differences Program. The Understanding Differences Program teaches children what disabilities are and the challenges people with disabilities face. The program attempts to help children understand that despite differences, people share underlying similarities.

Principal Wendy Wardlow talks openly about a program near and dear to her heart.

UNDERWOOD: What do you hope the children take away from the Understanding Differences Program?

WARDLOW: In all of my years of education, this is the program nearest and dearest to my heart. My father’s best friend was crippled from arthritis as a teenager. Although my father’s friend spent his life in a “chair” and could not bend his arms, he was a talented artist and musician. I simply adored him and was so offended when I thought people made judgments about him based on his disability rather than his ability.

Beyond learning how much we all have in common, I want our children to gain a deeper understanding of the amazing resilience of the human spirit. Ultimately, I believe resiliency is the greatest attribute we can give to our children.

UNDERWOOD: Can an emotion as complex as empathy be understood by young children?

WARDLOW: I KNOW empathy can be understood by young children. One of our parents recounted a story about how Understanding Differences changed his young daughters’ perceptions about a disabled relative. Paul’s cousin was born without limbs as the result of her mother taking thalidomide. He said his daughters were afraid to talk with her because she was so different. After the girls learned about motor disabilities through Understanding Differences, they visited their cousin and ran up to her asking questions about her wheelchair. Paul said that if we ever questioned whether the program had an effect on young children, this was a graphic example.

UNDERWOOD: Who came up with the program?

WARDLOW: Understanding Differences was the brainchild of Jennifer Friedman (a parent and neurologist at Rady Children’s Hospital), Donna Kuriyama (our school psychologist), Pam Reynolds (our Scientist in Residence), and I explored many disability awareness programs but could find none that we connected with so we developed our own!

As you can tell, this program has unusual depth which I attribute to the triangulation approach of Knowledge (Science Lab), Experience (simulations), and Understanding (speakers).



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