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Leader of To Be Like Me at table with others

To Be Like Me: Building Empathy for People With Disabilities

this DFW organization is committed to breaking down barriers and fostering compassion

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to navigate the world with a disability? Imagine flying on an airplane—with all its pings, announcements and jet noise—when you have severe sensory sensitivities. A Dallas-based nonprofit called To Be Like Me is helping kids (and adults) understand how it would feel to live like those with autism, chromosome differences, mobility challenges, learning differences, mental health challenges and other disabilities. We talked with To Be Like Me’s Hollis Owens, Toya Harris and Andrea King about the ways the organization breaks down barriers—and how anyone, anywhere can learn to become more empathetic.

What inspired you to start To Be Like Me? Hollis Owens, founder: Toya, Andrea and I have all worked in the medical field for many years. Toya is a speech therapist, and Andrea and I are physical therapists. Some of our patients have disabilities. They would tell us stories about barriers in the classroom, on a plane, at a restaurant and so on. They felt disconnected, misunderstood and sometimes bullied. There is a lack of understanding in the community about how you relate to and connect with people who have disabilities. We thought it was really important to educate the community. And the earlier we start, the better.

Many don’t realize that 1 in 5 people has some sort of a disability. So 1 in 5 students in a classroom has some sort of a disability. The chance that your child will interact with someone who has a disability or difference is very high.

How does To Be Like Me work? HO: The best way we have found to build empathy and compassion is through personal interaction and stories—so the next time you meet someone with a disability, you’re able to respond appropriately and really treat that person just like you would anyone else.

Toya Harris, director of programming and education: We are a two-hour field trip destination. School kids come to our facilities and are greeted by someone who is blind. Then the kids rotate through five experiences. We have “FlyKind Airways,” a cafe, a classroom, a “day in the life” experience and an assistive technology showcase. Each of these experiences is designed to get the kids thinking about what it would be like to live life with a disability. We’re so proud that all experiences are led by people living with disabilities, telling their first-hand account of what it’s like, very openly and honestly answering questions and just demystifying disability. Kids might meet a leader who is deaf in the technology section. They could meet someone in a wheelchair in our “day in the life” section. It’s just amazing to watch the children’s demeanors and comfort levels change from the beginning to the end.

Your work sounds so important for everyone to experience. Andrea King, director of development: Exactly. Disability awareness applies to everyone. We chose to focus on children for most of our programming—research has shown that it’s usually that 10- to 12-year-old range where, developmentally, kids are ready and can better have an appreciation for someone’s differences. Last year, we hosted all the fourth, fifth and sixth graders from Highland Park ISD. Just before the pandemic, we were scheduling visits from classes from Dallas, Richardson, Plano, Lovejoy school districts as well as private schools.

We also have done community programs, where whole families and just anyone can come. Teachers and school administrators have gone through our program. We hope to expand to offer programs for businesses—training programs that help foster compassion and empathy in those groups as well.

How has the pandemic changed things for To Be Like Me? TH: In the spring, after COVID-19 halted in-person programming, we really wanted to continue our mission. So we posted weekly interactive interviews with our leaders called “To Be Like Me Tuesdays.” We’ve covered topics such as “life before and after an injury,” service animals and stuttering. Then we put our heads together and came up with an online curriculum that launches on our website Sept. 1. Our main focus is still providing interaction between our leaders and students. We’re having the leaders introduce and lead all of the online curriculum. Then we’re excited to offer Zoom calls with these leaders, so classes can chat with them and learn more. We hope the online platform takes our work broader and plan for it to live on even when we start in-person programming again.

How can people get involved and support To Be Like Me? AK: Visit our website and follow us on our social media pages; that’s where we really share a lot of information and educational content. And we invite people to share our posts, because we want to spread the awareness of our organization and message. You can also support us through Amazon Smile; select To Be Like Me, and Amazon will donate some of your purchase price to us. You can also make donations through our website. To Be Like Me is a place of employment for our leaders. They get paid. So to continue providing this platform of advocacy and employment, we rely on donations.

HO: We also welcome anyone who wants to volunteer or even work as a leader. Reach out to us at hello@tobelikeme.org, and we will get in touch to discuss how you want to be involved. We have adult volunteers and even some students in school.

What advice do you have for parents who want to foster compassion in their children? TH: When your child notices somebody with a disability or difference and they ask, way too loud, a question about it, don’t see it as an awkward moment. See it as an opportunity to talk to your child and say, “I see they’re using a wheelchair. What questions do you have about that?”

You may not know all the answers, but try to start that conversation. Don’t make it taboo. Make it something that you can talk about. So many of our leaders say, “I don’t like when people stare or point at me. I’d rather them talk to me.” So, if the situation’s right—don’t interrupt somebody in the middle of dinner, but if you’re at a playground, it might be OK to say in a polite way, “My child’s very curious about your child’s wheelchair. Can we ask you a few questions?” Also, model inclusive behavior to yourself. You may need to approach somebody with a difference or a disability and show your kids that it’s OK.

Be in the Know

Visit tobelikeme.org to find more information, the free online curriculum, videos and more.

Stay updated by following facebook.com/tobelikeme1, instagram.com/tobelikemeorg, twitter.com/tobelikeme3 and the organization’s YouTube channel.

Fill out the contact form on the website or email hello@tobelikeme.org to volunteer or inquire about leader positions for individuals with disabilities.

Photo courtesy of David Alpuche.