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Passports to happy new friendships

How do you first get to know and understand someone who has communication difficulties? Personal passports is one answer that is gaining favour, reports Karen Shead

You are teaching Primary 3 in a mainstream school. On the first day of term, the headteacher hears the P1 teacher has had an accident and is going to be off on sick leave indefinitely. She asks you to take on that class.

There is a girl starting in the class who has physical and communication difficulties. You can catch up on the formal reports and planning notes later; meanwhile, it is 9.30am.

What would help you to get to know this child and how to talk with her and plan her work?

This scenario is presented in the introduction to Personal Communication Passports and the answer to the question lies in the documents behind the book's title.

Sally Millar, a speech and language therapist and research fellow at the CALL Centre (Communication Aids for Language and Learning) at Edinburgh University, suggests that a "personal communication passport" which provides all of the basic information you need to know about a child could be your saving aid.

Personal communication passports are a practical and person-centred way of supporting people - young or old - who cannot easily speak for themselves.

They are a way of pulling complex information together and presenting it in an easy-to-follow format. They are not full of medical jargon or confidential information, but instead provide details ranging from difficulties the person has to things that matter to him or her.

The idea for them came to Mrs Millar after the experience of one client who had a severe speech and language difficulty. "She was invited on a Share the Care weekend," Mrs Millar explains. "She had information in her bag but it didn't occur to her to get it out. The people were unable to communicate with her and she wasn't invited back.

"I thought to myself how could we make sure the information is shared?"

Mrs Millar has now been developing the passports for more than 10 years.

"At first I thought they would only be used by people with severe difficulties: the passport would contain key information about how to give them food and drink or how to recognise what their movements mean," she says. "But I realised there are children at the other end of the scale, who have a specific learning disorder such as dyslexia or dyspraxia, who could benefit from it. Every child I saw I thought this would be the thing for them.

"There are also times when it is vital that information is transferred, for example from primary to secondary and from school leavers, and the surest way is that it goes with the child."

The aim is to enable communication and understanding between the child and carer and to set down clearly medical and personal information which is not confidential so that the person reading the passport knows what is important to the child.

"People can not access medical or therapist files: even if they did look at them it would be hard to decipher them, anyway. You wouldn't know the child or what mattered to the child. What matters is that key information can be passed on quickly and effectively."

Personal Communication Passports: Guidelines for Good Practice, written by Mrs Millar with Stuart Aitken, a senior research fellow and psychologist, is about providing people with good practice guidelines. It is for teachers, therapists, families and all who work with and care for people with disabilities who cannot easily speak for themselves.

Scottish Executive funding has meant that 800 copies have been distributed free to special needs schools and units in Scotland. The CALL Centre has also had enquiries about the book from New Zealand and Sweden. "It's becoming an international thing," says information officer Allan Wilson.

The book gives tips on how to make a passport and the procedures you should go through, but is not prescriptive, says Mrs Millar. "I wanted to give guidelines as making a passport looks easy but it's not at all. It's easy to make a bad passport."

Firstly, she says, you have to know the person really well. A suggestion for the first page of a passport is to list the three most important things the reader needs to know; it might be the only page people have the chance to read.

"Try to think of the three most important things about you, these will be the first things people know about you," says Mrs Millar. "It's difficult to do."

One person alone should not write a passport, she says. "It's like a big jigsaw puzzle with different people putting the pieces into it; it's not always the professional people, sometimes it's the man who drives the taxi, for example. Lots of people know about a child. It's about sharing information and drawing it together.

"You don't just produce them overnight. It takes time to put one together of reasonable quality."

The passports do not have to be little books, she says. Some schools have made posters or placemats with the information.

Mrs Millar recommends that the child participates in the production by cutting out cartoons, colouring in pictures or choosing photographs. "Being involved in making the passport can be part of personal and social education. It could be part of their learning and communication curriculum."

Elizabeth Thomson, the teacher in charge of Lockerbie Primary's unit for children with complex learning difficulties, agrees. The unit has used personal communication passports for several years, after taking part in Mrs Millar's research pilot project.

"It's a good thing for the children to be involved in making their own passport," she says. "It's also a teaching resource that we can use with the child. We can go through the passport asking if they remember what they were doing on the day when a photo was taken.

"Using the passports has really been a great thing for us. I think they are excellent and would strongly recommend them. Anyone who wants to communicate with one of the kids can find information in the passport. It includes the sort of information they could ask a pal if they could talk, there's nothing confidential, nothing complicated.

"Things you can talk about are within the passport, so this lets you tune in to the children. It also lets you know things that might cause problems.

If you have a child who doesn't like to be touched, for example, you can warn people in the passport.

"It is useful for temporary staff. In a very easy sort of way you can access information that will help positive relationships develop.

"Some of our parents use it if the child goes into respite care. It means the information is there and it is easily accessible."

Mrs Thomson says that before introducing the passports, key information was kept in a work file. "Information was not easy to access and there could be confidential information, things that you wouldn't like everybody to know.

But with the passports you can make an attractive book that is welcoming and easy to handle, with information that you want people to know.

She warns that it takes time and effort to keep them up-to-date. "Reviewing them is an extra lot of paperwork, but it's worth it."

"The passports only work if given prominence," Mrs Millar emphasises. "Time needs to be set aside for people to make these things. You can only use it successfully if it is updated. The headteacher has to recognise its importance."

Mrs Thomson adds: "I'm really pleased Sally has done the book. It was her idea in the beginning. It has been so successful for us. The book sets it out so that people can make their own passports.

"I would strongly recommend them. It's such an effective way of passing on all sorts of information about somebody, wee bits that help people who don't know about the child to have a good experience with them. It also gives somebody a bit of dignity."

Personal Communication Passports: Guidelines for Good Practice by Sally Millar, with Stuart Aitken, pound;14, from CALL Centre, Edinburgh UniversityCourses on how to make passports are run by the CALL Centre.

Contact Sally Millar, tel 0131 651

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