The Disability Rights Commission is helping schools to recognise prejudice and promote good citizenship, writes Raymond Ross
Are disability issues important in your school, even if you have no pupils with a disability? The answer has to be yes, says Alison Lynas, the equal opportunities co-ordinator at Drummond Community High in Edinburgh.
"Saying that disability awareness is not important in your school because you have no pupils with a disability is a bit like saying anti-racism is irrelevant because your pupils are white, therefore it's not an issue.
"The fact is there are 10 million people in the UK with a disability. That must touch on everyone at some point," she says.
Last term Drummond High organised a cross-curricular Disability Week for S3 pupils, using the newly launched citizenship and disability pack from the Disability Rights Commission. Now it is to be embedded in the timetable as a yearly event.
"The pack focuses on disability, diversity and equality and the aim is to use debate, drama, art and simulation to promote disability awareness among students, helping them to draw on experience as citizens," says the DRC's policy and public affairs officer, Colin Macfarlane.
The pack provides eight lesson plans and a short award-winning film, which has proved extremely popular with pupils. Ms Lynas, who is also Drummond High's principal teacher of religious and moral education, singles out the video too as the best part because it clearly puts across the idea that it is not disability that is the problem but people's attitude to disability.
This is of relevance to education, given that 58 per cent of people with a disability (with or without long-term illness) have no qualifications, compared to 24 per cent of non-disabled people, DRC figures show.
Ms Lynas believes that the rights of people with disabilities are not adequately covered as a topic in schools, which is why Drummond High's S3 programme was designed to be cross-curricular.
"We had maths lessons where pupils were measuring parking spaces for the disabled at school to make sure they were in accordance with legal requirements. Science classes focused on famous scientists with disabilities, like Stephen Hawking. English classes read about autism. ICT classes looked at accessibility of websites, and social studies examined the Disability Act.
"In RME we focused on attitudes to disability during the week and discussed the idea that they were the barrier rather than disability itself," says Ms Lynas.
"I think we all learned a lot from the focus on language. For example, you should talk about a person with a disability rather than a disabled person, a wheelchair user rather than someone wheelchair-bound.
"It's not just a matter of being politically correct. Language is one of the most powerful tools we have to alter people's perceptions. The pupils understand this.
"We avoided a 'them and us' approach by stressing that any of us could be in a similar situation through illness or accident and that we will all know someone with a disability in our lives.
"I think the best approach is cross-curricular. In terms of lifelong learning, equality work plants a seed which you hope will take root," she says.
Seeing the pupils at work on the resource pack was an encouraging and reassuring experience for Mr Macfarlane. "It was the first time I've seen it in action and it was pleasing to note the pupils' enthusiasm and their positive ethos. Their level of awareness and their open minds I find hopeful and inspiring," he says.
Drummond High does not have a large number of pupils with a disability, but several adult learners with disabilities come to community classes during the school day, and the numbers may rise as a result of inclusion policies.
The school is geared up for them, with ramps, lifts and "evacu" chairs recently installed.
"Our adults return year after year, not just because we are set up to cope physically with their needs but because they find us welcoming, which I think is as important as the facilities we can provide," says Muriel Buchanan, the headteacher.
The school also runs British sign language classes and is an official test centre.
Disability Week is best seen as part of the school's citizenship programme, which is well known throughout Scotland through the Drummond Equality Game, a board game which will be updated and relaunched next month. "The Equality Game touches on disability issues as well as dealing in more depth with social and racial equality issues," says Mrs Buchanan.
"We see the disability week as a natural extension to this citizenship strategy."
WHAT S3 PUPILS LEARNT
"I learnt a lot, like there are more people disabled than I thought, most people with a disability were not born disabled and most do not use a wheelchair. I've become aware of un-PC language that needs changing.
"It teaches you respect.
"The pack is engaging. I liked the way the worksheets got you to identify the way of the world and the way of the disabled. If you have a disability you're less likely to get a job because of prejudiced attitudes. It's because of the world not making provisions, rather than because of your disability, that you're affected negatively."
"We're all well educated in academic subjects but can still use prejudiced language about people with disabilities without really thinking about what we're saying. The project taught me about language, to think about what I say and to correct others.
"The video was totally in touch with today and lets you think for yourself.
"The week was fun. In music we did Stevie Wonder, who's blind and OK musically, and Beethoven, who was deaf and was brilliant musically. I play the violin.
"I think the language was the biggest change for me."
"The video made me think about being in a position where I was disabled. I imagined I was that person. I loved the way they got you to do that I and how you are patronised.
"It teaches you all people are the same.
"The worksheets made you think about language. It opened my eyes.
"I think we should get taught more about disability when we're younger. We need to talk to primary schools about this.
"The younger you understand, the better. We need to stop prejudice as early as possible."