In early November 2021, after a long period of deteriorating health, I walked for the last time. Since then, I have relied entirely on a wheelchair, specialist crutches, a patient physio, the kindness of others, and an extraordinary wife, in order for me to mobilise either within or beyond our Hebridean bungalow.
I have a complex neurological disorder which has disrupted many of the brain signals so many of us take for granted, and whilst I may gradually regain (and, in a repeating cycle, re-lose) my mobility in the future, it is also possible that I will not walk again.
When I first shared my news with family and friends, several willed me, with nothing but positive intent, to “stay positive”, and I could not work out why I found nothing curative or of comfort in these words. And then I watched a 2014 TEDxSydney talk by the late, great Stella Young, Australian comic and disability activist, and how she responded to the sentiment embodied by many an “inspirational” meme about disability, and I realised why.
“…that quote, ‘The only disability in life is a bad attitude,’ the reason that that’s bullshit is because it’s just not true, because of the social model of disability.
No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. Never. Smiling at a television screen isn’t going to make closed captions appear for people who are deaf. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshop and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille. It’s just not going to happen.”
In my first six months of navigating an ableist world through a newly disabled lens, I quickly experienced what edtech pioneer, Professor Mohamed Jemni, observed: “The disability is not the problem. The accessibility is the problem.”
“Too many of us are working and learning, silent and invisible, in a normative world.”
In his work on how edtech could render education accessible to the 80 per cent of deaf people for whom it is out of reach, he talked about “breaking the silence”, and it strikes me that there is both silence and invisibility for most of the characteristics supposedly protected by the UK’s Equality Act (2010) and its international counterparts. Whatever our intersecting identities, too many of us are working and learning, silent and invisible, in a normative world.
Young argued that society needs to listen to and use the stories of disabled people not to inspire able-bodied people and make them feel better about themselves, but to uplift disabled people and give them agency, and access to the equity, inclusion, justice and belonging so many of us rightly claim to value above all else.
In other words, to use the phrase referenced by Emily Meadows in this excellent piece on LGBTQ+ inclusion in international schools, there is an important distinction to be made between intent and impact: the former centring the feelings of the empowered, and the latter the feelings of the oppressed. In my own work on transinclusivity in schools, I describe this as a shift from the condescension of “accommodation” to the emancipation of “adaptation”.
“There is an important distinction to be made between intent and impact.”
Last year, I was privileged to learn from Jim Ellis, head of innovation at ECIS, how design thinking can empower this necessary movement towards amplification and visibility for all, and it suddenly seemed so simple.
I learned how metaphorical “spikes”, a feature of hostile architecture, are ubiquitous, often unintentional and unobserved, within every stratum of a school’s function. And I learned how metaphorical “curb cuts”, often simple adaptations, designed for the few but benefiting the many, can significantly augment inclusivity. As Donald Norman, pioneer of inclusive design, observes: “…invariably when we design something that can be used by those with disabilities, we often make it better for everyone”.
Indeed, my recent work with GEMS Founders School in Dubai has applied this theory in practice, with students and staff conducting a “spike hunt” across the school, and with compelling results.
I would strongly recommend such audits in every school, as a means to adapt impactfully to the needs of those the inherited paradigm ignores. Indeed, in the words of George Dei, perhaps best known for his work on anti-racist approaches to education, “Inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists, it is making a new space, a better space for everyone”.
Often it needs only a superficial scratch of the surface to reveal the machinery perpetuating inequity and injustice for many of our school community, and the curb cuts then rendered possible combine intent and impact in palpable ways.
In fact, I would take this even further. I often talk about what I call the “5 Cs of visibility”: if we are truly to achieve visibility for all intersecting identities within our schools, we should look for the “spikes” that currently exist for each identity within the campus, communication, curriculum, climate and culture of our schools.
However, just as it took a female student of colour at GEMS Founders fully to articulate the spikes inherent within the archaic literary canon, we must also collect, curate and listen to the stories not only of every identity represented within our school, but also those of the world outside our gates.
“Either we are inclusive of everyone in our community, or we are inclusive of none.”
As I often remind schools, inclusivity is one of very few binaries: either we are inclusive of everyone in our community, or we are inclusive of none. And this “street data” will judge us accurately in terms of how far we still need to travel before we can truly claim to be an inclusive school.
Netflix’s incendiary 2019 drama, When They See Us, examines the critical difference between being looked at and being seen, and five Harlem teens have to fight with and for their lives to counter the oppression of a society which had criminally stripped them of visibility and voice.
Too often, these necessary shifts of power, despite being the current of natural justice, occur through struggle. Albeit in a totally different way, I am fighting for visibility and voice from the perspective of my disability, just as we, as parents, fought, relentlessly, for visibility and voice when my daughter was diagnosed on the autistic spectrum at three years old, and just as we have also fought for the same for and with my son growing up trans in a transphobic world.
“There is a critical difference between being looked at and being seen.”
However, to some extent, we had privilege on our side for each of these battles, just as I still do now, even from my wheelchair. Many of the students in your schools will not be so fortunate, but it should not, as a result, be down to them to fight for what is rightfully theirs.
We must provide equitable access to visible success and positive wellbeing for every single student in our schools, not just regardless of their identities and characteristics, but because of them. Schools can be anonymising places, and children and young people are adept at hiding further beneath the manifold masks they wear, thickly and well, every single day.
If we can audit our schools, and their 5 Cs, through the authentic lens of each of the ‘protected characteristics’, then we can start to provide the visibility and voice they need and deserve. To quote the song from musical, Dear Evan Hanson, that I often play as part of my own training, only then can we assure each and every one of them that “You will be found.”
This article first appeared in the summer 2022 print edition of Wellbeing in International Schools Magazine.