About 70 freshmen at North High School in Torrance were staring at Isabel Aguirre.
She has cerebral palsy.
The staring didn’t bother Aguirre, 16, a junior at the school, although staring usually makes her feel different. For this class, she was happy to be the center of attention.
She told them her message: “Be mature and treat us normally.”
Aguirre is among the 11 students with learning, mental and physical disabilities who spoke in the library to more than 450 freshmen at the school as they took time out from their world history classes recently for programs designed to make them more sensitive to the school’s disabled students.
“Many people take things for granted,” she told her schoolmates. “And one of the things is your ability to move. For most girls, it takes five to 10 minutes to put on their makeup. For me, it takes an hour to an hour and a half.”
The lessons taught by Aguirre and some of her fellow disabled students are part of an annual orientation program given entering freshmen. The program began five years ago, a year after North High School included the disabled among its 1,800 pupils. This year there are 200 students with various special mental and physical needs. And the program has grown into a weeklong event; it includes various physical challenges that attempt to show the average student something of what it is like to disabled.
“We didn’t bring these classes to North High just to help the handicapped,” said Principal Peggy Tremayne, “but our goal was to help the non-handicapped learn and grow.”
For Judi Hying, chairwoman of the school’s special education department, the challenge was not just to teach disabled students at the school, but also to integrate them into its social life outside the classroom. That led to starting the program and making it a requirement for all freshmen.
Hying said that since she started the program, she has seen a difference. She said students eat lunch and socialize together.
Guadalupe Manjarrez, 18, who has spina bifida, told the freshmen that being treated as a person isn’t something she experiences everywhere she goes.
“Some people treat me like trash,” she said. “They ignore me and stare at me. . . . I can race with people in wheelchairs, cook meals and flirt with boys.”
“I don’t like when people talk to me,” said Paula Stoddard, 19, who also has spina bifida. “They talk to my feet and my legs. They should talk to my face.”
For the freshmen, the experience was enlightening.
“People automatically close doors just by looking at them,” said Carlos Lopez, 14, in an interview. “This gives another perspective.”
Bob Strickland, 14, said it angers him to see students making fun of the disabled.
One of the other benefits of the program, Tremayne said, is that it has eased students’ fears of the disabled. She recalled an incident the year before the program began, when a teacher had an epileptic seizure during class.
“The class was hysterical,” she said. “We had to deal with it like a crisis situation.”
The next year, after the first freshman class had gone through the program, she was surprised by their reaction when a student had a similar seizure.
“As our kids walked by, I heard one of the kids say, ‘She has epilepsy, everything is going to be all right.’ ”
Last year, North High added simulation sessions to the week’s curriculum. Freshmen go through several exercises that simulate what it would be like to have a handicap.
They have to steer a wheelchair through obstacles, read Braille, be fed blindfolded by students who can’t use their hands and button their shirts and zip their pants with gloves on. It is an attempt to illustrate the frustrations disabled students deal with daily.
After the sensitivity program and the simulations, Gian Sulzman, 14, said he had a new respect and understanding of others.
“It gets us to understand what they go through every day,” he said.