Ignorance is not an option

2nd August 2013 at 01:00

Bullying is founded on selfishness and self-absorption. The desire to ridicule, judge or attack others - either on- or offline - reflects a desire to feel valued. Other people's emotions are used as a ladder on which to climb to self-importance.

Attacks on others, in order to alleviate personal insecurities or self- hatred, are often directed at children - and adults - with disabilities. In 2011, AbilityPath.org released a report called Walk a Mile in Their Shoes, which revealed that nearly 85 per cent of children who have special needs experience bullying.

That figure may prompt feelings of disgust, rage, incomprehension or anger. But beyond these emotions is another option: consciousness. We can commit to intervention through education.

However, before deciding to undertake such an intervention, I suggest that a personal audit is required. Ask yourself: how many teachers do you know with a disability? How often has someone with a disability visited your home, either as a friend or as a guest? For most of us, the answers to these questions confirm that business as usual is not an option. In fact, doing as we have always done is discriminatory and disrespectful.

By choosing to run interventionist programmes, we can create an environment of equality, thoughtfulness and respect in our schools. We can move beyond ourselves and recognise and affirm the lives of others. From that single decision, learning can begin.

One such disability awareness programme is Just Like You, based in Australia. Aimed at students aged 9-11 and run by the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, it recognises that one in five Australians has a disability. It intervenes in the culture of invisibility, marginalisation and bullying.

So how does it work? Two presenters deliver, free of charge, two Just Like You sessions in a school across a fortnight. One presenter has a disability. The able-bodied and disabled presenters are equals. They discuss disability in an open and balanced way, showing how to communicate with respect and care towards girls and boys, men and women with disabilities. The example set by the programme is extraordinarily valuable.

Comments made by students after they have completed the programme are profound. One participant said: "I was surprised about how many different types of disabilities there were. When I was little I used to think they're all the same."

Those of us with the great privilege to work in education have an opportunity to intervene in ignorance. By recognising the distinctive life circumstances of others, and the need to acknowledge and welcome such diversity, education can be transformative. At a time when the focus of education is on benchmarking, standardised tests, literacy, numeracy and league tables, Just Like You is a reminder that we must teach what we need to learn.

Tara Brabazon is professor of education and head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University in Australia.

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