Feeling included and fitting in at school
Having difficulty fitting in at school is a common issue for many kids. What about when you have a disability? For Peta life just got a bit more complicated.
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Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to The I Can't Stand Podcast, the podcast, answering your questions on what it's like to live with a disability. My name is Peta. I have cerebral palsy. I'm your host and I love to answer your questions. If you'd like to ask me a question, you can do it via my Instagram, which is @petahooke via email, which is firstname.lastname@example.org or via my website, www.icantstandpodcast.com. OK, without any further ado, let's get into it.
[00:00:48] This week, I had a really great question, and I know I say that every week, but it was a really great question. I got it from Kati. Kati asked me.
Kati [00:00:59] Peta, how did you go fitting in at school?
Peta [00:01:07] Oh goodness, ok. So I'm going to talk a little bit about my experience during education, and then I'm going to suggest some ways that schools could make sure that kids with disabilities feel more included and fit into social groups more effectively.
[00:01:27] So when I was four, I started in the community kinder. I love my kindergarten. I have very, very fond, fond memories of it. I was an anomaly and stood out. Surprise, surprise. So all the kids were obsessed with my walker. At that stage, I used a walker. I didn't use a wheelchair. Yeah, the kids were all lovely because, at that age, they didn't realise that disability could be negative. It was fantastic.
[00:02:00] Primary school, I'm pleased to say, wasn't much different because my kindergarten was basically next to my primary school. A lot of my kindergarten class ended up starting prep with me. So I had a really good head start in making friends. I felt like I was part of the big group. The school was fantastic in making me feel a part of the school and not somebody different. There was one other boy that had a physical disability that had a purple wheelchair that I think was the year below me or maybe two years below me. There were a few kids with what was called learning disabilities back in the day, which I was actually very close with at the time. Yeah,
we weren't really seen as different, I don't think even the word disability really came up at my primary school.
[00:02:56] In high school, like a lot of people, it got a little bit more complicated. I started high school, year seven and I went into a private school and I felt a really, really clear shift between my public primary school and my private high school. This wasn't helped by the fact that six months before I had an operation go really wrong, which I'll talk about in another episode, but I had an operation go really wrong. I was really sick. So it was basically a miracle that I started year seven on time at all. I was on some really, really heavy; legal, legal, very legal, but heavy drugs to deal with the pain. In hindsight, I'm not surprised. I struggled to make friends because I would have been so spaced out. I was not in my own body for many, many months. I mean, I remember sitting in my first maths class and I couldn't take in any of what the teacher was saying, and all I could say was little purple elephants running all over the room. So it's not a surprise that many of the kids didn't warm to me straight away. And you know where 12 going on, 13, we're all awkward, we're all anxious, we're all starting a new school and I'm the only one at the school to ever have had a physical disability, to my knowledge, anyway.
[00:04:37] Look, of course, I made friends. It happened eventually, but it definitely was a much more difficult process than I had been previously. From probably halfway through year seven, all the way up to you, 12, I stayed in the one friendship group. There were six of us, and looking back now, I don't really know how to describe a group. I'm still friends with two of the girls today and when I asked them why it was that we all gravitated towards each other, I can't really put it into words, and neither can they. So I was definitely not part of the sporty group just by default. I was definitely not academic, definitely not. With being so sick in year seven, I didn't really take that much in and to be honest, I was sick up until I was about 15 or 16, so I was definitely not part of the smart group. I was also not nerdy, which was very inconvenient. There was a lot of lovely sort of nerdy people at my school that would have accepted me in my disability wholeheartedly. But I wasn't nerdy enough for them. I didn't really get it. So I definitely not part of the nerdy group. And I definitely wasn't part of the pretty group either.
[00:06:09] Looking back, I don't think I advocated for myself very well during high school, I didn't want to rock the boat. I didn't want to be different, a lot of people in my family went to my school and I didn't want to be the exception just because I had a disability. If I was the person that I am today starting at that school, I would have advocated for myself a lot more and recommended a lot more things to be put in place to make sure that I or someone like me would thrive at the school. And that is by no means a criticism of my school. I just don't think the school had the tools or recognised what it would be like to be the odd one out. The only one with a disability in the entire school.
[00:07:07] If you're a teacher or part of the education system, I thought I would include some suggestions on how to make school more inclusive from the perspective of someone that has a disability. Of course, this isn't a full list, an extensive list. I can only speak for myself as someone with a physical disability, I don't know what it's like to have an intellectual disability, have a hearing impairment or a vision impairment. But if you take it with a grain of salt, here are some recommendations for schools.
[00:07:46] I'm going to go with the obvious first. Please make sure the student attending your school can access all areas of the school. I found it really awkward in myself if I couldn't access something. I felt like it was my fault and I was being the inconvenience. Sitting in now, I know I wasn't an inconvenience, the step was, but it didn't feel like that at the age of 13 and 14. I felt like I was the odd one out and having to ask a whole class of 30 fellow kids to move just because I couldn't access the room made me feel really awkward and singled out. So if all areas are accessible by default or can be made accessible through adaptions, I think that would have made me feel more comfortable and also make me feel more equal and included in all school activities. And of course, this is all down to budgets and the ability to do it and resources and all that stuff, but in an ideal world, if the adaptions could not look like something that's only temporary, that would be really great. My high school did put adaptions, but the majority, if not all of them, felt very temporary. So I felt like as soon as I finished at the school, all those ramps would be removed and all those changes would be removed and it would be back to being the inaccessible school that it was when I first walked in. Feeling like you're only a temporary part of a community is quite isolating.
[00:09:42] Another thing a school can do is to make sure that the student has a good support system around them. It's important for the student to feel like they're liked. Like people like them and these things aren't being done just because they have a disability. These changes have been done because they're a valued member of the school community. By listening to the person with a disability, by listening to their advocates, by listening to their parents or guardians, it all makes a huge difference to how at least I perceived myself at the school. But it is a difficult balance. I'm not going to lie. Because at the same time, I think it's important for a school to be cognisant to not highlight someone and their difference, to not single them out. Encourage and embrace somebody in their disability, but not be tokenistic.
[00:10:57] Can I highly encourage all schools to make integration aids feel also a part of the school community? Like anyone, they deserve to have the job satisfaction that their fellow colleagues experience. So please make them feel welcome. Don't make them feel different because they're the only two in the school or they're not a part of the teaching community at a school because they're not a teacher. I know teachers make an impact on 30 students on a regular basis, but the impact that my integration aids I had, yes, it was on just me, but it was on me for a number of years. Six years, five days a week. I mean, you can't replicate the sort of relationship and importance an integration aid has on someone with a disability. So please, schools make integration aids feel welcome.
[00:12:06] I don't believe my experiences overall are very different to most people who attend education. Regardless of whether you have a disability or not, going to school is a very challenging experience for many people. There's not many of us that just sail through life without any issues feeling left out or feeling different. Overall, though, I feel very lucky for the experiences that I've had, that I have always felt like I fit in with my friends, that I've never been bullied. That overall, I feel understood and loved by the people I chose to be my friends.
Peta [00:12:55] Thanks so much for listening, I hope you enjoyed my answer. If you could please rate and review the podcast, share it with someone who you think might be interested in listening or share me on social media. I would really appreciate it. Until next week bye.