I was amused recently to see a new television advert that has been created for Scope, a charity committed to enabling disabled people to have access to the same opportunities as their peers.
The advert is set in an open-plan office and a new disabled employee is being shown around. Upon seeing that he is heading their way, his new colleagues go to great extremes to hide rather than interact with him: diving behind the water cooler, jumping into the stationery cupboard or rolling under desks.
It made me laugh because what is depicted is an awkwardness and fear that I have observed frequently when non-disabled people encounter unfamiliar disabled peers.
The advert is funny because the ridiculousness of the reactions is made so obvious; the humour allows us to recognise these behaviours in ourselves and appreciate how primitive and nonsensical they are.
But underlying the laugh is a critical message. For pupils with disabilities, the feeling that people are “hiding” from them can have very serious and significant consequences.
Hiding can be subtle
Hiding does not always take such obvious forms as those depicted in the advert. It can be much more subtle. It might be the headteacher suggesting to the parent or carer of a prospective pupil that the school down the road is much better resourced to support children with special needs.
It could be children corralled into a special unit at the end of a long corridor and timetabled for separate breaks. Or, it might even be the teacher who always directs the teaching assistant to engage with the pupil who is “special”.
The advert ends by turning the word “hide” into an acronym that suggests practical ways to manage our reactions to people with disabilities.
When we find ourselves around unfamiliar disabled pupils, we would be wise to apply Scope’s advice to “say hi, introduce ourselves, don't panic and end the awkward”.
It's about recognising our similarities rather than our differences; resisting the fear and having a go. If communications or other interactions don't go quite as we expect then we just need to embrace these as opportunities for our own learning. After all, just because you are a teacher, that doesn’t mean that you have nothing left to learn.
Scope is now running visits to secondary schools to discuss disability as part of this campaign. Find out more here.
Nick Hodge is professor of inclusive practice at the Autism Centre, Sheffield Hallam University.