Many years ago as I was beginning to establish my career I was a support worker for a girl with a severe disabilities. One of the things that I had to do was take her to recreational activities. These activities were decided by my boss. My boss had this misguided idea that the activities were decided in consultation with the girl. Given that communication with the girl was difficult and that my boss could not communicate with her, this was a bit misleading. But she was the boss so I just went along with it.
Inevitably activities were things like craft groups, walking groups and things like that. My client was a young woman and participants were usually elderly women who were not disabled. They would would say a cheery hello to my client when she arrived and then proceed to ignore her for the rest of the day. They would go on their bush walk and my client would keep up the rear. Usually after ten minutes she would kick up a fuss because she did not want to walk any more.
The elderly ladies would look back as she screamed and kicked things. They would ooh and ahhh and shake their heads. They would then pick up the pace leaving my client sitting in a heap. Around this time I would take her home. The activities, said my boss, were best practice in inclusion. I would often point out that my client was not included. “She is just there.” I said. “like a passive object.” My boss didn’t take to well to this suggestion. Fairy tales are much more palatable.
This memory came back to me this week as I was attending the Pathways conference in Perth. Pathways is a conference held every two years for disability support people at Universities and TAFE from around Australia. There were several papers presented that challenged the concept of inclusion as we know it in education. The gist of it was that arranging support to allow people with a disability to partake in education is fine, but is it enough? Is it enough to focus only on their learning needs? Are we missing something?
It made me think of my education at school and later at University. I realised that there was very little of it that I actually enjoyed. Sure I had a few wild parties but even those, when I think of it, I wasn’t really included in either. I would go to a party, I would drink and basically just look on and watch. I couldn’t really follow conversations. Usually any conversations that I had were when some nice woman, nearly always a woman, would take pity on me and strike up a conversation.
This conversation would usually be quite stilted. One because I had to lip-read, not an exact science, and two because the parties were usually noisy and being deaf with a deaf voice meant that it was hard for people to understand me. I am easy to understand when it is quiet, but when it is noisy I struggle to modulate my voice. I ether talk too loud or too soft. Looking back, even though I got sympathy sex from time to time, it was exhausting.
Then of course there is the actual learning. The first time I went to university was at the old Salisbury College of Advanced Education in 1984 to study teaching. I met with the head of the school to discuss my “inclusion.” All that could be done was to ensure that I sat at the front so I could lip-read the lecturer and to remind the lecturers to look at me and not cover their mouths. No interpreters, no note-takers – Nothing! I didn’t last long.
Then I went to Mt Gravatt College of Advanced Education. I got interpreters there and note takers. I was even involved in the student activities organisation committee. I attended numerous meetings and understood nothing because there were no interpreters for these. If there was a shortage of interpreters, which was often in 1985, I inevitably missed out because – I spoke well. But at least I had access to learning material. It was a start.
Three broken legs later in 1986 I gave up the ghost and returned to Adelaide to study social work. I attended the University of South Australia. I met with Dick, the DLO there, who promised me the world. He was gonna organise me a note taker buddy he was. He was gonna get me lecturers note he was. He was a fucking star, brilliant, he did fuck all. So much, in fact, that after four days at Uni and no note taker, no buddy and no notes I had to stand out the front at the lecture theatre and ask for help.
Help was forthcoming. After all these were future social workers. Imagine if they didn’t want to help, the industry would be screwed. But the help was sporadic. My buddies would forget to give me notes. They would rush off to the next lecture. I was always chasing them up. It was not ideal. And there were still no interpreters.
To be fair the University later pulled out all stops. They tape recorded lectures for me and Dick’s secretary would type them up. Problem was she was very busy and the notes came two weeks later so that I was forever playing catch up. They paid someone to take notes for me too. BUT there was still no interpreter.
Everything was focused on ensuring that I got access to learning material. I wonder if this is still the case today? I mean, even though I can get interpreters now, their use is in lectures and group work. If I get note-takers, it’s for lectures and group work. If I get access to technology, the focus is to ensure I get access to information during lectures and group work.
What the literature generally shows is that students with a disability are thankful for support, but the support is often not enough. A theme that comes up often is attitudes of other students who are non-disabled. Students with a disability want to be part of the bigger picture. Not feeling equal and included with their peer’s impacts on their enjoyment and motivation to continue with their studies. Data sadly shows that retention of students with a disability is much lower than those who do not have a disability.
Often just learning is not enough, there is a real desire to belong. Apart from the desire to belong one needs to consider how much having access to peers actually helps ones education. Peers actually talk about what they have learnt. They see things from different perspectives and angles. Having access to natural social interaction allows students with a disability to expand on their learning.
There are many other factors that contribute to retention rates of students with a disability. Sometimes it comes back to learning styles and the needs of specific disabilities. Sometimes students with disabilities necessarily learn differently. University learning is known for its rigidness. Sometimes there are strict and inflexible requirements like the ability to observe, hear or stand. These are called inherent requirements and all are developed with no thought as to how a student with a disability may have developed different skills to complete tasks.
The inflexibility of some academics to bend these requirements is legendary. But students with a disability often simply do the same thing differently. For example nursing requires the person to stand yet there are apparently nurses in wheel chairs in America. I heard a story of a nurse who is a short statured person, she carries a step ladder with her to ensure she can reach where she normally might not. Inherent requirements in Australia have not been developed with any of this in mind.
Inclusion is complex. It is not just about being there. Some people are quite happy to just attend classes every day for four years to get their degree but most people are not. People with disabilities want to belong, they want to experience new things and they want to enjoy. What became obvious at the recent Pathways conference is that inclusion is a holistic concept and if it is to be successful a whole range of issues beyond simply learning need to be factored in.
I can hear the Abbotites now screaming that it will cost too much. All I can say to you is that people with a disability not completing their study will cost more. They will get low paying jobs, they will rely on Government hand-outs and what’s more the money spent on their further education is wasted if they do not complete it.
It’s time to review the art of inclusion. Urgent investment is required