Yesterday, @JulesDaulby got riled on Twitter and wrote the following:
“When QT wrote a blog claiming devil’s advocate I thought actually, the blog was not provocative just prejudiced and in extremely poor taste. So I wrote a rather ranty blog. I also questioned how ‘normal’ you have to be for mainstream a while ago.
What happened next though was better: the Titans of SEN began to respond – I’ve used this image before – over the brow of the hill came the voices and it made me feel proud.”
Whilst far from being a Titan, I have a few thoughts on all of this that I’d like to share.
I have worked with pupils with additional support needs for over 20 years. The work I have done has been as a teacher and a dramatherapist and the pupils have had mild to profound needs.
I was also brought up by parents who have helped to run a weekly social club for adults with complex needs since the early eighties. From the age of about 13, I attended the local ‘Gateway Club’ fairly regularly to ‘help out’. This involved playing games, singing, dancing and socialising with some of the most friendly, loyal, loving and sometimes challenging people you could meet.
In that sense, I have been immersed in the world of special people for most of my life. I don’t have that sense of not knowing how to respond or act which some people express. But I also think that some people express that sense as an excuse to exclude.
(This is not the place for a lesson on how to engage but my answer to anyone is always to start by watching, listening and letting the other person take the lead. Being present is sometimes all that is needed to provide human connection and company.)
I have worked in special schools, special units within mainstream settings (my preference) and mainstream schools whose approach was one of locational inclusion (put the child with a disability in the class with an assistant and let the class teacher differentiate; my least favourite.)
I have worked in city schools, rural schools and small island schools.
My overwhelming belief is that we need to talk and educate, in schools and society, about what difference really means and what inclusion really is. I believe that we need to be explicit and not skirt around the issues. It seems acceptable that people know if a peer is hearing or visually impaired but we are less willing to explain when a peer has delayed cognitive ability. Such information can be crucial in allowing genuine interaction, however. It is not about making people condescend or talk down; it is simply about allowing people to understand others better.
Recently I have been researching Challenging Behaviour in an attempt to support school staff better. In my authority we have relatively few specialist settings and a presumption of mainstreaming. This means that we need to ensure that Challenging Behaviour is understood for what it is; not as a choice or an attempt to disrupt but as communication when self-control is no longer an option. The only way that schools can accommodate pupils with such behaviour is where every member of staff…. and every pupil in the school…. understands it for what it is and understands how to react when it happens.
Challenging Behaviour is not a guilty secret and we need to do more to raise awareness around it. ‘Love Actually’ provides a brief insight through the character Sarah (played by Laura Linney) whose mentally ill brother Michael (played by Michael Fitzgerald) needs her constant support.
And real insight came through Louis Theroux’s 2012 BBC 2 Extreme Love series where he showed the challenging behaviours associated with both autism and dementia. Find extracts on YouTube if you missed them.
We need insight, education, honesty and understanding rather than segregation and denial, in my opinion. Let’s not have Inclusion as a woolly aspiration in schools but as a discrete subject. If the schoolchildren of today can be taught to understand each other and each other’s differences, imagine the society of tomorrow that we could create.