accessibility

Open Letter To Secondary School Principals

Dear school leader,

I have been working in schools for 20 years. I am also a product of the New Zealand school system. I am also proud to work with young people in the 21st century. I’m aware of the challenges of change, of change that is occurring rapidly and the desire to produce the best possible outcomes for those in our institutions.

The desire to move with the times in regard to future oriented/focussed education has seen modern learning environments and the integration of technology to grasp the new and complex ways of working and creating‘ ‘confident, connected, actively involved life-long learners’. Ensuring young people have a strong sense of who they, to be ‘positive in their own identity’. Therefore I ask one simple question. How can young people who are questioning their gender or sexuality experience ‘inclusion’ while they are outrightly denied opportunities to be who they are? How can New Zealand Secondary Schools call themselves ‘non-discriminatory’ when their very practices are designed to enforce discrimination, in order to maintain a sense of school identity? I’m confused, and I don’t think it’s a phase.

While it seems that MLE’s work hard to break down physical and pedagogical barriers there appears to be a counter move to maintain traditional ideas of gender. We have inherited a legacy of ‘single sex education’ from the early 20th century and these are perhaps caught between tradition and historical constructions, but is this a valid reason to maintain policies and practices that deny the existence of transgender or those students who’s sense of self falls outside prescribed normative notions of masculinity and femininity? Schools find ways to respect cultural diversity through inclusion of additions to uniform but refuse to allow students flexible options to express their gender regardless of sexuality.

If I could suggest one thing that might enable a new way of thinking, I’d invite school leaders to see this not as a moral issue, rather an opportunity to bring the concept and representation of diversity into the 21st century, it is actually about accessibility. But not just access to physical space, but to social, emotional, psychological and pedagogical access to knowledge, ideas, and practices that validate their identity. Yes this is a plea to be MORE PC – to Please Consider, Providing Choice.

Please phase in uniform choice and phase out outdated assumptions that require male and female bodies to be clearly identified by separate uniforms. Gender inclusive practices go beyond bathrooms and changing facilities (but these are still needed), staff training around use of language that helps young trans, gender and sexually diverse people (including staff) feel acknowledged needs to be part of ongoing professional development.

There are new sexuality guidelines for school, please do not ignore them or hope that ‘common sense’ will suffice, otherwise, schools rely on sense informed by fear, myths, and misconceptions. Respect for diversity requires ‘unique sense’, careful and thoughtful consideration BUT more important, courageous action. That is, to acknowledge these students exist in your community whether visible or not. Allow groups of young people to form support groups, do not force them ‘underground’ and into the shadows, to slam the closet door shut to protect the reputation of the school, or your own. To me, this is the ultimate indicator of a school that has yet to grasp the value of a more complex, uncertain and flexible concept of diversity. I’m still waiting to see Principals encourage and endorse these groups openly. I hope I don’t have to wait for my own child to get to High School (you have 5 years to get it sorted).

As an ex health teacher and a counsellor I ask that you consider the violence inflicted by denying and invalidating at least 10% of a school population. Then consider the violence that is normalised by society through homophobic and transphobic language and ask yourself if you are satisfied ‘common sense’ is working to make schools safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, fa’afafine, and takataapui young people.

Finally a personal reflection question -are you leading your community into the future of diversity or the past?

Advertisements

Polly Put The Kettle On

Sometimes I’m just not sure how to read other peoples writing, especially when radio DJ’s have opinion pieces in the NZ Herald. I suspect the tongue in cheek style is meant to provoke a range of responses and more than likely, Polly Gillespie struck a chord with her piece yesterday.

It is a mixed rant about accessibility, or more to the point people playing on the ‘privilege’ of having a mobility card. But it doesn’t stop there she was shouted at for using a wheel chair accessible toilet my some irate guy in a chair when she was desperate to relieve herself (and was overly generous in her description).

So I reckon I might invite Polly for a cup of tea, but I might need to pop out and get some milk. I have the luxury of choosing how I get to the shops. More than likely I’ll walk or bike, coz I hate parking. If I was having tea at my friend Philips place (well, that’s highly unlikely but play along) we might go in his van to buy milk. So because I am in the van, does that disqualify him as a wheel chair user to park up in a mobility space while I nip in? Or should I wait in the van and play by Polly’s rules and make my mate prove his worth by dropping the ramp and winching his chair down? Then to realise the dairy is outa milk? Na I don’t think so.

My simple point is this. When people are in a position of privilege they sometimes grow a sense of entitlement to hold others to particular standards of playing by the rules. I do have sympathy over her toilet incident. When you’ve got that sense that no amount of sphincter squeezing is going to stop this thing breaking free, you just don’t care what toilet you’re in. But again I invite others like me who are functioning in common ways to consider this – calling out ‘I’ll only be a minute’ makes no sense. One minute for me is a long time in the toilet (sorry if that is TMI) however for those with diverse mobility – time is mediated by the need to co-ordinate a whole bunch of other steps in between getting in the door and doing the business. So it’s kind of like time dilation – think Interstellar only not quite as extreme (you wont come out and find the world has changed…sadly). So replay that statement for us common functioning folk to ‘I’ll only be 10 minutes’ and you get my point.

There will always be assholes and people pushing the limits. One of my favourites is the pram parking at shopping centres, I suspect at times there are a few people going ‘shit I’ve got the pram in the back, wonder if my 5 year old qualifies me’.

Polly, put the kettle on – I don’t have milk in it anyway.

inclusive exclusion

Throwing money at schools to provide more support for students with unique functioning says something about a profound discomfort in schools with any form of diversity beyond culture. When writing about the ‘cost’ of providing support for disabled students the needs of the majority of students who ‘might miss out on teachers time’ are privileged. The threat to the normative learning environment is what is represented when it comes to promoting increased funding and my concern is this moves schools further away from inclusive and more toward exclusive concepts of special needs. One of the reasons I think is a general dis-ease with any form of emotional, social, physical difference. The need to manage diversity by erasing undersirable outward expressions of uniqueness means schools have lost one of their most powerful functions, to provide young people with experiences with others who may ‘be’ un-like them to allow this unsettling to play an role in forging a genuine appreciation of the vast range of humanbeingness. Maybe this has something to do with the insanity behind assessment driven pedagogy, I’m not sure, but the dominant concerns indicate this might be part of the reason.

Another pressure point is the growing parental entitlement creeping into education. I don’t begrudge parents wanting the ‘best for their children’. However neoliberal forces seem to have condensed and concentrated this into a drive to demand that schools remove all barriers to their child achieving their best. It seems as though ‘accessibility’ has been hijacked as an idea to some degree. If litigation or media exposure is threatened, Principals can be backed into a corner to preserve their brand. These are some of the contextual influences skipped over by media in a bid to focus on economies of identity – financial bottom lines and the ever growing business management approach to education and pedagogy.

A concept I find increasingly needed but missing in schools is de-expertising. That is, you can actually ask young people themselves what they need! And be careful to allow for some space to just them to be teenagers, de-pathologising youth in general would be a good start. Getting frustrated, angry, emotional and struggling to communicate feelings is not uncommon for teachers…or young people. Let’s remember that and get back to basics – the 3 r’s – 1: Are assumptions disabling students more than their actual disabilities, 2: Are young people consulted when developing IEP’s? (especially year 11 and beyond but even before this), 3: Are the needs of the many really that different to the needs of the few?

Having said all this however I am acutely aware that parents are covering the costs of teacher aids and shouldn’t be. I’m also grateful for the work RTLB’s and TA’s do, an often invisible and underappreciated part of the fabric of teaching. To the Ministry Of Education, put your money where your mouth is but don’t let it suffocate a wider discussion of inclusion, belonging and feeling valued by everyday practices in schools.

(don’t) Build It And They (won’t) Come

In Field Of Dreams, Kevin Costner is haunted by the ghosts of Baseball players who urge him, via a rather persistent whispering of ‘if you build it, he will come’ to create a baseball diamond in his corn field. Far from being locked up for having schizophrenia or some other mental illness, Costner’s character trusts the voices and builds the diamond and is rewarded with the sound of white ash on cork and leather. I’m not sure about the afterlife but it appears ball players just want to keep playing and why not! It’s a great example of creating accessibility through simple modifications to space.

Accessibility is generally associated with disability but I think we’ve constructed a bit of an apparition of sorts by assuming the individual who is not functioning in a bipedal manner defines the ‘problem’. I mean steps ruined the plans of the Daleks from Dr Who originally when they were restricted to the mechanics of wheels. For a time travelling, disembodied, biomechanical species they didn’t need sympathy or charity or empathy they needed better technology. And unfortunately for the human race they got it. Science fiction aside, technology has the potential to level the playing field and redraw the boundaries of understanding around functional diversity, which I feel is long overdue.

This was highlighted to me recently when I was part of a conversation that included a somewhat nervous observation from a colleague about the number of ramps being built. If it’s possible to sprain the occipito-frontalis muscles that raise your eyebrows then mine were definitely in that category. I have no doubt there was no intention to be functionphobic but as I searched for a response it dawned on me the complex meanings and ideas we hold about disabilities and response-ability particularly in education. My question was simple ‘what do you mean by that’? And then there was a very awkward pause. So I asked with genuine curiosity ‘are you concerned that ramps could mean more needs and resources?’ I wanted to shift the reference away from a personal lack or deficit so I nonchalantly threw in ‘I think of it as simply accommodating a different form of transport and this doesn’t necessarily mean they will require extra support in class’. I also had to state that students had a right to attend their local school which might seem logical but the hidden reality for many years in New Zealand has been a form a legitimate exclusion based on the inability to access buildings (even though it is illegal to do so), or as I call it – ‘the Dalek effect’.

But why the panic around more wheel chairs at school? Unseriously then, yes more young people in chairs could create all sorts of wild crazy ideas amongst commonly functioning youth. They might all want to come to school in chairs, we would need a rule about that then, or skaters and other students will want to ride around school, we would need a rule about that, or outbreaks of chair racing might endanger other students, we would need a speed limit on that, and what about not standing when the principal walks onto the stage! Well I’m not sure about you but I can see the conundrum so it probably makes sense to not build ramps so they won’t come.

We have come a long way and some travel that path on wheels and might suggest that even though their road is less travelled the destination is equally important. It really is time we ramped things up around notions of accessibility and got over our collective general anxiety around functional diversity. Kiwis ought to remember part of our national identity is sporting success and how often do we do well in wheel based sports or ones where we sit down.

Yes for me it is not Field Of Dreams but dreams of wheels.