A Touch of Understanding, Inc.
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Organization Details


Our character building in-school workshop provides a life-changing opportunity for students to meet people with disabilities and to experience for themselves what it may be like to have a disability. The workshop is three hours long and is broken up into two parts:

Part 1: Speakers with disabilities talk about their lives, their challenges, and how they achieve their goals; during the hour and a half session, students are encouraged to interact with these volunteers and ask questions which might be inappropriate in other settings.

Part 2: Students visit activity stations where they: use a wheelchair and white cane, learn to write their names in Braille, perform a task using a mirror to simulate a learning disability, experience the sensation of having autism, and handle braces and artificial limbs. After the workshop, students are given enrichment materials which enhance their ATOU experience and encourage discussion at home: an activity book, a bookmark, a Braille alphabet card, an autism card and a button to wear.
Program Successes
- During the 2018-2019 school year, 10,929 students participated in our disability-awareness workshop.
- Students participating in our in-school workshop demonstrate an improvement in attitudes and behavior towards people with disabilities.
- Students who have suffered isolation and exclusion from their classmates find themselves included and respected as never before.

However, the real success is measured by the effect our program has on people's lives:
- A fifth grader wrote: "I am so glad you came and told us so many things about disabled people. This now makes me think people with disabilities are superheroes or have super powers."
- A high school student wrote: "We are all humans with different experiences and should all be treated as the rare and extraordinary individuals we are!"
- A 4th grader wrote: "We are all the same. When you meet someone with a disability, they are still kind. It doesn't change who they are. It just changes what their body looks like."
In 2010, the ATOU Youth F.O.R.C.E. (Friends Offering Respect, Creating Empowerment) was formed. This inclusive group of young people, some with disabilities and some without, is a youth/adult partnership offering character-building leadership opportunities for youth who have expressed the desire to be involved with ATOU after experiencing the in-school workshop. Starting with a small group of 12 dedicated youth, the program has now grown to more than 200 registered members. Their self-determined mission is "to make a difference, and have fun doing it." In the past year, monthly activities have included: Whitewater rafting, Soccer, Glamorous Camping, Halloween Party, Holiday Parade, ATOU's 20th Anniversary Celebration, Art Night, Valentine Dance, Board Game night, Science Exploration Night, Lion's Club Special Kids Day, Summer Kick Off party. In addition to the monthly events, the Youth F.O.R.C.E also held a board game drive to donate new games to Shriner's Hospital for Children, Northern California. The Youth F.O.R.C.E was able to complete the entire wish list of board games, and donate over 250 new games.
Program Successes
"The ATOU Youth F.O.R.C.E. is important to me because I have met a bunch of new friends there I really like. At the Valentine's Dance I got to meet a new friend Collette. We have become friends and text each other." - Maria, age 14, born with multiple disabilities
"In this mix of kids, some with disabilities and many without, not one was self-conscious. They were completely enjoying themselves with no inhibitions. I literally could not stop smiling as I sat and watched what I can only call joy in motion. This, I thought, I have never seen before. I can never recall being at an event of teenagers where everyone was not standing around nervously wondering if they were doing, saying or wearing the right thing. Here in this space created by A Touch of Understanding's Youth F.O.R.C.E., everyone was safe to be themselves. It was a gift to those kids with disabilities who almost never fit in and it was a gift to all those teenagers who came to give and received instead." - Maria's mother
Members of the ATOU Youth F.O.R.C.E. who attend high school at Granite Bay wanted to continue the friendships they found at the events. This led to the creation to the GBHS ATOU Youth F.O.R.C.E. Club. The club offers friendship and opportunities to students on campus with special needs. They are also a huge asset as volunteers to ATOU at events and by helping in the office. With the success of the club at Granite Bay High School, three other schools have also begun ATOU Youth F.O.R.C.E. Clubs on their campus: Oakmont High School, Whitney High School, and Roseville High School have all started their own clubs.
Program Successes
- The GBHS Youth F.O.R.C.E. Club offers mentoring, modeling, and encouragement.
- It creates mutual respect and inclusion for people with disabilities.
- Friendships that were previously cut-off by artificial boundaries grow organically in this environment.
- It has lead to expansion at three other high schools, all carrying on the message of inclusion, acceptance and friendship.
A Touch of Understanding (ATOU) provides two hands-on disability-awareness programs for businesses and government organizations, the Spirit of Inclusion and Dark Meals. These programs serve as valuable springboards for discussions about respect, empathy, and acceptance for all types of diversity. The experiences can be utilized as a foundation for other activities regarding team building and character development. Both programs are facilitated by Darlene O'Brien who has been a speaker and advocate for A Touch of Understanding since August of 2000 and currently serves on the Board of Directors for the agency. Since going blind in 1998, she has dedicated herself to demonstrating that all people, with or without disabilities, deserve the same considerations and opportunities found through social interaction and competitive employment.

The Spirit of Inclusion is based on our award-winning workshop that has been presented to more than 100,000 participants in the Greater Sacramento area and beyond. The workshop gives participants a glimpse into the life of someone with a disability. In addition to disability etiquette, and reasonable accommodation training, participants become familiar with the tools associated with disabilities. Hands on exercises include using wheelchairs, handling a variety of braces and artificial limbs, using white mobility canes and becoming familiar with assistive technology for the blind. Individuals with disabilities relate stories about their challenges and what approaches and tools have been helpful to them, in life and in the workplace.

Workshop objectives:
- Minimize the discrimination and misunderstanding experienced by people with disabilities.
- Understand that stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions can contribute to the non-physical barriers between those with disabilities and those without.
- Learn the appropriate disability etiquette which will enable participants to comfortably interact with those who have a disability.
- Identify and understand tools and assistive technology used by those who have a disability, and become familiar with reasonable accommodations in the workplace.
- Increase awareness of participants to the accessibility issues that face people with disabilities.

The ATOU Dark Meal provides participants with the "eye-opening" experience of eating a meal under blindfold, to gain understanding, appreciation, and respect for individuals who are blind, and for the skills they use to navigate their world. In addition, through disability etiquette training, participants will acquire the skills to more easily and comfortably interact with individuals with disabilities including: blindness, deafness, paralysis, loss of limb, and autism spectrum disorder.

Each participant will:
- Put on a blindfold provided by ATOU
- Walk to their seat with a white cane with assistance from ATOU staff
- Receive instruction from facilitator Darlene O'Brien to effectively navigate their place setting
- Eat their meal under blindfold while talking with their peers
- Have the opportunity to share new insights from their experience
- Receive a disability etiquette reference guide
Program Successes
- Recently ATOU provided the Spirit of Inclusion Workshop to nearly 100 employees of the City of Roseville.
- One participant wrote that it was a "great training and highly recommend this become a mandatory training. This will be utilized with all depths within the city."
- After going through the Spirit of Inclusion workshop at Center High School, a staff member commented "I feel that this was one of the most valuable trainings I've ever engaged in. I hope that other workshops will follow a comparable or valuable layout that makes the experience real. It's very important to be able to step into the shoes of a person with a disability. Thank you very much!"
- Dark Meals have provided similar feedback. One participant wrote "I will remember this experience for a very long time and it will inform my perspective on the extraordinary capacity of people to adapt to change, including my own."