Group 1: Peers
If you were to watch any of the videos on the How I Learn website, you may see images of students with disabilities like myself, being surrounded or followed by lots of smiling fellow students. Unfortunately, this idealistic vision is not the reality. Social interaction can be difficult for many adolescents both with disability and without, which means it is not unusual for students to feel isolated at school. This situation is not helped by the fact that many young people aged between 12 and 16 years old, are often very aware of any differences from ‘their perceived normal’ and prefer to not attract any attention to themselves. For someone using Assistive Technology (AT) or having an obvious physical, sensory or intellectual disability, it can be hard to not stand out from the crowd. Here are my tips for making a tricky social situation a little bit easier.
1) Own your disability.
An initial reaction of other students is to not voluntarily offer their friendship to students with disabilities. I think it is because of their own uncertainty and insecurity with regard to difference. This is my reality as a user of AT which makes my disabilities highly visible. Because of this, other students often see my AT even before they see me. My advice to you is to own your AT and disability. Answer questions as honestly and as simply as possible. Also, if the school makes an effort to socialise students at times such as orientation, homeroom introductions, discussions and wellbeing activities, this helps students to find commonality through a shared activities.
2) Find common ground.
Once you have made student acquaintances, it’s important to keep balance in the back of your mind. Students may ask questions about your disability and that is great. My advice is to assume they know nothing about disability, and in particular your disability, and keep your explanations short and simple. Then divert the conversation back to general teenage interests. This is because disability is not a foundation for friendship with fellow students. It’s important to find common interests with your peers and develop a foundation for friendship on something you can both relate to. It is also important not to dwell on the things you don’t agree on. I have found that some friendships I have made have started simply with topics such as movies and TV, pets, favourite places, and favourite foods.
3) Be the organiser.
Non-disabled teens find it really hard to conceptualise and organise the potentially unique logistics of socialising with a person with disabilities. They have often started organising their own social lives, but are still immature when it comes to the consideration of more complex logistics associated with a disabled person’s access. This is why teens with disabilities are often not invited to out-of-school social events by their peers. Accompanying this can be lots of secret whispers about the event, so as not to hurt the uninvited person. When observed by the person with disabilities, this behaviour actually hurts too! It’s why, if I ever wanted to get together with friends, I made it my responsibility to organise and plan the event. My parents and carers can help with this. There are heaps of fun and accessible things to do together, but it is just not as impromptu as the socialising of non-disabled teens. I suggest meeting at the movies, a cafe, or the shops is always fun.
Group 2: Education Assistants
In the videos on How I Learn, you may see an image of a smiling and happy Education Assistant (EA). EAs are compassionate and well-meaning people and it took me a while to realise that like all of us, they are human beings with their own lives, intelligence, specialities and personalities. Initially I was very affected if my EA’s did not show consistent qualities and during high school I have discovered many who I now grade as A’s B’s C’s and D’s in both achievement and effort, just as I am graded at school! It’s important to remember that you and your assigned EA are colleagues, who have to help each other work. Despite school saying they are the ‘senior person’ in the relationship, with all due respect to this position, you are the person with the disability and you know what care you need best. So you need to develop your management skills to be able to deal with a variety of people. Here are some ways to help them, help you. These tips also apply to classroom teachers as well!
1) Communication is key.
When giving your school documents that communicate your needs, it’s important to give a separate copy to every single one of your EAs and teachers, as well as their managers. This helps to prevent communication breakdowns. It’s also important to highlight any extra bits, so that they stand out to them and they know to take note of it. Same goes for verbal information, repeat it to everyone and stress the important bits.
2) Small talk.
In my opinion, small talk is a really useful tool for getting your EA motivated because it reminds them of all the fun things and people they’re working for. Be sure to keep questions general to avoid an unprofessional situation, and take a mental note of their answers to use in conversations later. Great topics include family, weekend plans, weather, news and hobbies.
3) Be specific and clear.
This is especially important if you’re communicating verbally at a meeting like an IEP (Individual Education Plan) meeting. You need to be extremely precise and clear about what you need, so that everyone is on exactly the same page and there are no communication breakdowns or mistakes in the future. Writing things down using resources like the How I Learn Student Questionnaire can help with this. If you feel like your message is being confused, you can repeat yourself or ask questions to gauge everyone’s understanding. With EAs it’s also important to be very clear when asking for help in class. Remember, in assessments, you must be totally clear, because they’re not allowed to help you answer questions, and will record anything you say.
4) Keep your cool.
On occasion, if your EA is not doing a very good job, try not to show annoyance or anger. In my experience, I can confidently say that this will only get you into trouble. Just remember they are humans who make mistakes too.
5) Speak up!
And finally, don’t be afraid to speak up. Remember that you have a voice (or communication device). Tell them what you need, what’s right for you, what doesn’t help or work for you – anything that will make your life easier at school. (But also remember, speak up not over). It’s never good to bottle up your thoughts, so if you’re having trouble advocating, speak to your parents/carers, any pastoral care staff you may have at your school, or any of the various support groups, like YDAN, across W.A.