Thursday, December 4, 2003

Disabled students move from wings into spotlight

Actors' roles fanciful, the friendships genuine

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hope Glenn doesn't usually get starring roles in plays. But there she was this week on stage at Ryle High School, wearing cats' ears, black clothing and a big grin.

She sang. She improvised. She linked arms with fellow actors. It was an afternoon of belonging.

Hope has Down syndrome and attends classes with eight other disabled youths at Ryle. Some use wheelchairs. Some have severe learning problems. Their special needs mean they're usually on the sidelines of school activities.

Ann Fillmore is determined to change that. Today and Friday, she's putting on a play called Santa's Workshop with a cast of disabled and non-disabled teens.

"I just thought, 'Hey, these kids can do a lot,' " says Fillmore, the special-education teacher at Ryle.

Besides letting Hope and her classmates ham it up, the play showcases a course called Peer Tutoring, offered in about 60 Kentucky high schools.

Through the class, non-disabled youths earn credit for helping disabled students gain social skills. The peer tutors also study cognitive and physical disabilities and learn about careers in related fields.

This semester, Ryle has 22 peer tutors. Most are in the play.

"I can't wait," says Lacey Zink, 17. "This gives people a chance to see what we've been working on - that they (disabled students) have the ability to do more than people might think."

Dress rehearsal was Tuesday. Performances will take place today at a rest home, a children's psychiatric hospital and a rehabilitation center.

At 7 p.m. Friday, the public performance will take place at Ryle.

The disabled actors blend seamlessly with the rest. At one point, for instance, space aliens do a dance, twirling around several students in wheelchairs, one of whom is disguised as a UFO.

Tuesday's dress rehearsal was full of stage whispers and laughter - a great experience for all, says Stacey Wherry, 17.

"They don't have many friends without disabilities," Stacey says of Hope and her classmates. "They're in a little, tiny circle, and we're in a big-circle world."

Now those circles are starting to overlap.

Tickets to Friday's show range from $3 to $5. For information on Peer Tutoring, visit the Web site


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