I worked in a brilliant school today, and delivered disability awareness training to two classes of children, who probably taught me a lot more than I taught them. Often when I begin the first of the two week sessions, the kids don't know what to expect and are very quiet and shy. They become more involved during the class, and the more we discuss different types of disabilities, the more they realise how many people they know who have one. Petting O J towards the end of the class is the icebreaker, and by the time I return the following week, they are usually talkative and full of questions. Its a lovely transformation to watch.
Today's classes were different. The children were on the same level as me right from the beginning, eager to learn but just as eager to tell me about their own experiences. I'd much prefer them to talk more than me, and they always have lots to say. The first group of children talked about different types of disabilities. Their teacher asked them if they knew people who had any, and they listed family members, friends, friends of families, neighbours, friends of neighbours, the neighbour's dog, etc. He then reminded them that they forgot to look closer. Their own school has a few children with obvious disabilities. Clearly they see these people as friends first and its possible that they sometimes even forget that they have a disability. Of course people shouldn't be encouraged to ignore their disability or act like it doesn't exist, but the fact that it isn't the most important part of a child's personality is great. That's proper integration if you ask me!
The second class I visited had first-hand experience of people with disabilities. The two special needs assistants sat at one side of the room while their students sat at the opposite side, working independently just like their classmates. One of the children had developed a physical disability through illness, and spoke openly about how it affected him. He is a great sportsman and seems to have a very positive attitude. The other child had a hearing impairment and used a cochlear implant. Hearing loss is something I always talk about but its something I don't have much hands-on experience of, so it was fantastic to be able to learn more directly from a child. I wore a headset connected to the loop system so that he could hear me speaking. He described how it works, how himself and his parents, (who are both deaf) communicate, and even asked if I wanted to touch the piece connected to his ear.
Both children were able to confidently talk about their experience of disability. It was an important part of their lives but not the most important part of their class, and they weren't treated any differently. This positive confident attitude doesn't come from nowhere. It comes from their parents/guardians, families, teachers, classmates, friends and people in the community around them. These nine and ten year-old children make me feel more confident that the future for people with disabilities might be a great one. I left the school feeling like I had learned a lot just by being there. I'm really looking forward to returning next week. The positive feeling of integration in the classroom is brilliant to watch, and the teachers were just as enthusiastic as the children.
My good mood for the day continued when I got a phone call from a friend to say that A local restaurant had found "lost property" belonging to me. It turns out that it was a handbag with the harddrive that I lost last August and was sure I would never see again. What a brilliant day :)