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Guest post: Are there enough disabled role models in schools?
Scope recently launched ‘Scope Role Models’ – UK-wide school workshops, led by a disabled role model who shares their story and takes part in an ‘Ask Me Anything’ Q&A session. To explore further why initiatives like this are needed, we asked freelance journalist Sarah Ismail to share her thoughts on representations of disability in schools, past and present.
Are you a disabled young person of school age, or the
sibling of one? If so, how often have you been taught at school about a
disabled person doing something positive, something that you can look up to? Are you the parent of a disabled child? If so, how often have they come home and told you that today, at school, they learnt about a disabled young person doing something positive, something that they want to do?
I was once a disabled child of school age.
I attended two mainstream schools in the 1990s. I only remember having that experience once, in 13 years of school and college.
That was when my Year 6 class watched My Left Foot. My teacher was trying to teach them about my disability, Cerebral Palsy. She chose the story of a man much older and much more severely affected than me. I wasn’t insulted – Christy Brown is a role model to everyone of a certain age with Cerebral Palsy. He provided hope to generations of our parents.
My point here is that if I hadn’t been in their class, my class would never have watched My Left Foot at school. They would never have needed to. They may never have been taught, at school, about any disabled person doing anything positive. They may have grown up to believe that disabled people didn’t and couldn’t do positive things.
Are perceptions shifting?
When I was a child of school age, I was made to participate in PE lessons, with Learning Support teachers and lowered nets of course. Yet no one ever told me that the Paralympics existed. If my teachers had told me that the Paralympics existed, I could have been a Paralympic swimmer today. In fact, I found out about Paralympic sport and the Paralympic Games much later. Thank goodness Ellie Simmonds didn’t, but she’s a lot younger than me.
I hope things have changed in schools these days, though. I hope that PE teachers in all schools celebrate the achievements of Dame Sarah Storey and Hannah Cockroft and Ellie Simmonds just as much as they celebrate the achievements of Andy Murray, Mo Farah and Chris Froome.
I hope that more English teachers teach Richard III as well as Macbeth, and I hope that they try to explain scoliosis to their pupils. After all, you couldn’t get a more important job for a disabled person than King of England!
The importance of positive role models
I would like to see all children, in all schools, reading and watching and learning stories in which disabled people do important, positive things. Any child’s first role models are their teachers. Disabled children want their teachers to tell them that when they grow up, they can do anything they find interesting. Disabled children want to learn about people like themselves doing interesting things, so that when they leave school, they know that they can look for interesting things to do with their own lives.
Children without disabilities, of course, also need to be taught about disabled people doing positive things. Children who are taught about differences in a positive light from an early age grow into sensitive, understanding adults who learn to show empathy, not unnecessary sympathy or pity.
The non-disabled children of today may grow up to become the parent carers of tomorrow. They may become disabled as adults themselves. I think it would be great if, should they be in either of those situations, they could look back on their schooldays and remember being taught about the positive things disabled people can do. Maybe, just maybe, those early lessons might help them to realise that their child’s disability, or their own disability, doesn’t have to be a negative thing.
Sarah is a freelance journalist and blogs frequently on disability issues at Same Difference.
Do you remember a time at school when you felt inspired by a disabled role model? Do you feel that school’s today are doing enough to emphasise the positive things that people with disabilities can do? Let us know in the comments below. And do get in touch if you're interested in being a Scope role model.
[Update 03/12/2019: this service is currently not in operation.]