Newton’s ‘Understanding Our Differences’ branches out

Brian Heffernan, a guest speaker for Understanding Our Differences, looked over his recent presentation with his mother, Julia Heffernan.
Brian Heffernan, a guest speaker for Understanding Our Differences, looked over his recent presentation with his mother, Julia Heffernan.Camila Beiner for The Boston Globe

Newton plans to go national with its longstanding program to help children better understand disabilities.

The school district’s classroom initiative to teach third through fifth grade students “to see the whole person” is in the beginning stages of becoming an online resource for schools around the country.

Katherine Read, co-president of the Board of Directors of Understanding Our Differences, a Newton-based nonprofit, said it is effective because elementary school children are curious and open minded.

“Once they have experienced our program, they focus on the similarities of their classmates, not their differences,” Read said. “The curriculum benefits not just the kids with disabilities but all the kids in a school community.”


She said the online program will include instructions on how to coordinate activities and locate guest speakers.

“This means that schools will not only be able to use our curriculum, but the delivery of the program will be faster and easier to access,” Read said.

The current model consists of seven different units covering a variety of physical, sensory, and developmental disabilities, as well as chronic medical conditions. So far, organizers have completed a pilot online version of the autism curriculum, which they will initially test out in Newton.

For more than 40 years, parents, teachers and volunteer instructors have taught the program, Read said. Guest speakers with various disabilities talk to students and answer questions, and the program’s hands-on activities help students better understand the strategies used by their peers with disabilities.

Rebecca Lubens, executive director of the program, said the current model is already offered to more than 3,000 elementary school students in Newton alone and has continued to spread to about 80 schools in Massachusetts.

“Our board is dedicated to our mission and believes in the importance of fostering schools and communities that are welcoming, understanding, and inclusive of people with all disabilities,” she said.


The Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in August 2018 showing one in four Americans live with a disability.

“This makes people with disabilities the largest minority group in the country,” Lubens said. “People often do not realize how prevalent having a disability is and that makes a program like ours even more important.”

Lubens said the program is meeting this month with state Representative Kay Khan, a Democrat from Newton, to request additional funding to help support the project. The program receives most of its revenue from contributions and grants.

Newton Public Schools provides yearly grants to Understanding Our Differences to help support the cost of presenting the program in all 15 Newton elementary schools program, Lubens said.

“The goal is to have enough funds through fundraising to add two more units to the initial pilot version by the end of this year,” Lubens said.

David Ticchi, one of the guest speakers for the Blindness unit, said blind people including himself use a screen reading program that converts the text to speech, and that’s a critical component to consider when constructing the online digital format.

“Understanding Our Differences has to make sure all that is being done online is accessible to blind people — not only for the blindness unit but for all the units,” Ticchi said.

One of the biggest challenges people with disabilities face is public attitudes, he said, and the only way to change perceptions is learning more information about disabilities through programs such as Understanding Our Differences.


“I always try to stress in my presentations the fact that, yes, we are to recognize diversity, but it’s also important for us to understand that as human beings we have much more in common amongst us than these differences,” Ticchi said.

Kerry Prasad, a parent volunteer for Understanding Our Differences, said the online format enables the program to continue the idea of normalizing differences beyond Newton schools. One of her children has gone through the curriculum, she said, and another is starting in third grade.

“It ensures that the very lessons that Understanding Our Differences has created stay authentic and intact as they spread to different schools in different districts,” Prasad said.

Prasad said the activities are interactive and in small groups, which enables them to better understand and empathize.

“It allows children to begin to see that people with disabilities are people; they just move through the world in a different way,” Prasad said.

Brian Heffernan, one of the guest speakers for the Intellectual Disabilities unit, said he first became involved with speaking about disabilities when he was in seventh grade when students in his sister’s class were mocking children with Down syndrome.

“My mom suggested to both of us to speak about my life and how my disability affects me,” Heffernan said.

The program encourages elementary school students to become allies with children with disabilities, he said, especially when transitioning to middle school.


“It was my elementary school friends who became my allies when I was being bullied by middle school students who did not know me,” Heffernan said.

Heffernan said Understanding Our Differences has helped him develop friendships with all types of people and pursue his passion for advocating for people with disabilities.

“I won the inspirational speaker award for Understanding Our Differences, and as I mentioned earlier, I speak to all my alma maters so from elementary to college students,” he said.

Living with Down syndrome comes with specific challenges, Heffernan said, but the support of Understanding Our Differences and others in his community have allowed him to live a successful life.

Brian has been able to impact the lives of all types of people by showing the world that people with disabilities can achieve anything.

“Understanding Our Differences has made me realize my story is important and diversity is important because I really care not only for people with disabilities but also those who don’t have a disability,” Heffernan said.

Camila Beiner can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.