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David Garcia Project educates on disabilities, promotes empathy

Every few weeks, students spend an evening trying to button up a shirt while wearing thick gloves with popsicle sticks of different sizes attached at the fingers.

This is how the David Garcia Project teaches students what it’s like to live with arthritis, a painful inflammatory issue causing stiffness of the joints.

Hosted by the Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center, the David Garcia Project is a disabilities awareness program that holds sessions featuring activities simulating different physical, visual, auditory, learning or psychological disabilities.

“The experiential learning is supposed to create understanding,” said Robert Zinger, a campus programs graduate assistant. “We don’t talk about how bad we feel. I think you get a sense of respect for people with disabilities because you realize how many hurdles they overcome in a day.”

While each session usually only includes four activities, the project has more than 10 activities simulating disabilities.

Visual disorder simulations include walking while wearing goggles covered in stripes of black tape. Another includes blindfolding participants and asking them to put themselves in order without talking. Auditory disorder simulations include giving participants ear plugs and asking them to play “Simon Says” and asking participants to talk with one another.

Learning tests include tracing a star while looking in a mirror and reading an article written backwards.

“We try to push them like a professor would by saying things like ‘come on guys, you know this’ to make it as realistic as possible,” said Naomi Evans, a Schoolcraft junior and the project’s student coordinator.

Simulation activities have grown with the program, Evans said. Simulations for schizophrenia, a psychological disorder, was added last year.

For the simulation, participants listen to overlapping voices saying mostly negative things.

“This was very eye-opening for me,” said Dakota Yeaster, a Jerome sophomore who attended the Feb. 1 open session. “My father suffers from three of the four disabilities that we covered today. I usually make fun of him for it and call him old and don’t have any patience for it. I feel bad now. I feel like I learned a lot about these disabilities tonight.”

Open sessions are for any student interested in participating. These sessions typically bring in more than 15 people and include four activities, Evans said. Volunteer hours can be gained by attending the events.

Private sessions are closed to the public and are for specific organizations that reach out to the project. Evans said they receive two or three requests each month. Attending the sessions as an organization is both a bonding and educational experience, she said.

“We have some (organizations) who continue to reach out, so it becomes almost like a tradition,” Zinger said. “(Interest in the program) seems to be growing.”

The program isn’t meant to incite pity — instead they focus on promoting empathy toward those with a disability.

“We like to say our mantra is to teach empathy instead of sympathy,” Evans said. “What we do is put you in the position of someone with a disability so you can see what they might experience. We try to take what happens in your personal life and show you what it would be like if you had to deal with it in everyday life.”

The next open session is at 7 p.m. Feb. 15 in the UC Lakeshore Room 125. Those interested can sign up on the project’s OrgSync.