Changing attitudes

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Legislation may have outlawed discrimination, but there are still social barriers to overcome. David Newnham reports on a campaign that seeks to raise disability awareness

Jessi Parrott loves netball, swimming and tennis, and her favourite subject is English. She has written several short stories, and wants to be an author. So why won't shop assistants speak to her?

She may be only 11, but she has given the matter a great deal of thought.

"If you are in a wheelchair," she says, "people aren't sure that you can talk, and they don't want to embarrass you if you can't."

Jessi says that only once has a shop assistant spoken to her directly, most preferring to address her mother instead. She has worked out a ploy to use in such situations. "I always talk to my mum quickly so they realise I can talk," she says. But not all her problems are so easily resolved.

Although her school, Beckford Primary in Camden, north London, has three floors, there are ramps and lifts to help her and other disabled children move around. Nevertheless, motorists occasionally park across the ramp at the school entrance, and when that happens, she is stranded in the road.

And as if it weren't enough that she has cerebral palsy and cannot walk, there are also emotional difficulties to contend with.

"Other kids get a bit jealous sometimes because of the attention I get, and because of what they call my 'cool' electric wheelchair. Then they start teasing me." Until other children got to know her, they would whisper about her to each other, and one day last term a girl told her she was "a spaz".

Headteacher Dilys Hoffman says she and her staff are quick to respond to such behaviour .

But now, at least, Jessi's experiences and insights may help to inform tomorrow's citizens. For Jessi was one of a number of children interviewed by the author of a new schools pack designed to help teachers introduce disability issues into the teaching of citizenship and PSHE at key stages 2 and 3.

The pack, Just Like Us, was written by Don Rowe, director of curriculum resources at the Citizenship Foundation, on behalf of John Grooms, a charity that works with disabled people. Its purpose is to make children question their definitions of disability and appraise their attitudes towards people with disabilities. It broadly follows each area of the citizenship curriculum, and draws on case studies and interviews with individuals like Jessi, as well as works of fiction and drama, to encourage discussion and initiate classroom activities.

Don Rowe says that the process of putting the pack together was in itself an eye-opening experience. "The more I looked for issues and ideas, the more I discovered," he says. "There are so many aspects that one could offer, even from a strictly citizenship angle. At one point I began to feel I could keep on writing and produce a course that was six months long without exhausting the vein."

John Grooms had considered dealing with disability issues across the whole curriculum, but it soon became clear that the subject was uniquely suited to a citizenship context. "It offered lots of opportunities to exemplify things like rights and responsibilities, criminal and civil law, attitudes to change and how the media work," says the author. He was struck from the outset, he says, by the fact that legislation on disability has only recently entered the statute books. "The visible profiles of equal opportunities have been race and gender, and we've had legislation in those areas for over 25 years. But disability has been a neglected area.

"The issue now is how many lessons can we reasonably expect teachers to be able to devote to it, given that most are finding time constraints a little bit challenging. One would hope that it would be more than just a couple, because the issue is so important and so rich."

Rowe believes that society has disempowered disabled people by casting them as "less able", and echoes Jessi's view that it is other people's attitudes that are the biggest hurdle facing disabled people. "I think these attitudes can be shifted," he says. "Some of it is just a kind of mental laziness, and once you begin to think through the issues you feel yourself much more obviously aware."

Just Like Us is free from the John Grooms charity: Email: 020 7452 2114The pack is supported by a website:


According to My Fair Lady, there was nothing much wrong with the average London flower girl that a course of elocution lessons couldn't put right. But the reality was somewhat different. Unlike Eliza Doolittle, most of the young women who went to the markets early each morning to buy scraps of flowers or watercress to sell on the streets were injured or disabled.

Hungry, cold and sometimes homeless, frequently relying on home-made crutches for mobility, they faced intolerable hardship and danger, particularly in the winter months when flowers were scarce.

It was the plight of these flower sellers that, in the 1860s, moved a young preacher called John Groom to provide them with food and shelter. One day, as he was helping a disabled flower girl who had collapsed in the street, he was seen by Lord Shaftesbury.

As a result of this chance encounter and Shaftesbury's subsequent support, Groom was able to buy a factory where the girls could make artificial flowers. He also bought empty houses for them to live in, and eventually opened an orphanage in the seaside town of Clacton in Essex.

Today, the John Grooms charity offers services for people with disabilities, including specially designed housing, residential care, holidays and rehabilitation for people with head injuries. It also works to raise awareness of disability issues, to which end it developed the Just Like Us schools pack, with funding from Barclays.

The history of John Groom's work with London flower girls is described in a section of the pack that explores the role of voluntary organisations in working for social reform and examines the link between personal beliefs and active citizenship.

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