Disabled? Or disabled by society?

As some of you are aware, I was a physiotherapist for about 10 years before I became a teacher and a massive part of my role was working with adults and children after injury or illness to regain function and independence.

Often, full function and independence would be regained and life would return to their normal, but sometimes the illness or injury would result in an altered sense of normal for that person.

In a world where we seem to be bombarded from a young age about what ‘normal’ is, it is very difficult for someone who doesn’t fit that prototype to feel like they fit in. There is a lot of talk (rightly so) about colour and ethnicity at the moment and the right of children and adults to see themselves represented in the world around them. This is not just important, it is vital and it is just as important for children and adult with disabilities to see themselves represented in our world too.

When working as a physiotherapist, it became clear that our whole world is set up for people who can walk, see, hear and speak, etc. without any assistance and if you do need assistance with any of these things, there can be huge barriers to life and function. It always made me think that if we lived in a world where we didn’t have steps or narrow aisles in shops or where there were more hearing loops or aids for the visually impaired, etc. would disability even exist? I spent a lot of my time helping people overcome barriers to their function because of the systems around them, rather than because they couldn’t do it in their own way. In other words, often it was the attitudes and barriers of the ableist society we live in that disabled people, not their own ‘dis’abilities.

Take someone who has had to have an amputation, for example. Many amputees can regain mobility and use crutches or a wheelchair to mobilise. They can transfer from different surfaces independently, sometimes using a sliding board, sometimes without any equipment at all. They are completely independent. However, put them into our world which is set up for a weird prototype of ‘normal’ mobility and often, they are no longer independent. They may struggle to access shops or homes if there are steps to access, they can’t often carry a basket or push a trolley if they need to use crutches and there are often not appropriate trolleys or baskets that would help them so straight away, they are unable to access these places and complete these tasks independently. Not because they are unable to, but because our world has decided that they do not mobilise in a ‘normal’ way.

I don’t talk about this often but I was a young carer and was brought up in a family where wheelchairs and equipment were ‘normal’. It also meant that from a young age I was aware of the fact that disabled people were constantly made to feel a nuisance. I would place a bet that anyone who has ever taken someone out in a wheelchair has experienced the frustrated sighs of others if you ‘get in the way’ or are too slow or if you block the aisle because your chair is too wide for the shop. Comments along the lines of  ‘what a stupid idea to bring THAT in here’ as if you could just leave your chair by the door and walk in are a common occurrence. It can become such a traumatic experience for some people that they don’t feel they want to go out alone or feel like they are an inconvenience and so are reluctant to go out even with others.

We take our ability to move ‘normally’ for granted but for someone who doesn’t fit in to this stereotype of normal function, the world can feel a very lonely place. I feel really passionate about ensuring every child sees themselves represented in their world and about every child seeing different representations to themselves in their world so we can deconstruct this image of how a prototype human looks, sounds or acts.

And this is why it is vital that we represent everyone in our curriculum and the books that our children read. It isn’t acceptable that we create a manufactured prototype of what a human looks like – whether that be colour, religion, shape, ability, gender… Every child needs to see that there is no such thing as a normal human. Everyone is normal and everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in the world they live in.

Last year, I visited the most magical school in Liverpool, Springwood Heath, and it made me really emotional. There are children there with disabilities, children who use walking frames, wheelchairs, crutches, children who have feeding tubes, catheters, hearing aids, children who have autism, Down Syndrome, visual impairments and they are all educated together in an inclusive learning environment. The children play together because they are surrounded by the modelled ethos that we are all different, but we are all normal. Seeing the children all playing together on the playground, regardless of their different needs was one of the most amazing experiences I have had as a teacher and it just goes to show what can be achieved.

Our children are the next generation of guardians of our planet and it is our duty as educators to ensure that they grow up without a warped sense of some people having more power because of they way they look or function. We need to make changes and we need to make changes now.

Look at your classroom. Do you have representations of different types of people? People in wheelchairs? Amputees? People with hearing aids? People with medical devices? We have got to make sure that children grow up knowing that there are many different types of people in our world and just because they may be different to them, they are still ‘normal’.

It shouldn’t just be a case of ‘oh I have a child with a medical device with me next year, I better make sure I add some pictures to my lesson powerpoints of someone with that device and find some books with a character with it too.’ Don’t get me wrong, that is a great start, but just like with diversity relating to colour, it should just be a thing that every person is reflected in everything we do or show.

At the start of every year, I ask my children to draw a healthy person. So far, absolutely no children have ever drawn a picture of anyone who isn’t standing on two legs with no medical devices at all. I repeat this task at the end of the year and the representation of different types of people in these drawings always make me proud because over the year I do my absolute damndest to show my children that disability doesn’t mean you are not healthy. You are just different, as we all are.

In the words of one of my favourite artists, Picasso:

‘There is only one way to look at things until someone shows us how to look at them with different eyes.’

Representation of disabilities in children’s books and the curriculum is fairly scarce (and actually, often, you just want characters to be there like they are in real life and not made to be the token hero for the sake of it.) Books are an excellent way to help build empathy in children and the more books with a representation of characters with disabilities or medical devices in them that children have access to, the better we can ensure that all people, no matter their differences, are accepted and we can get rid of this ridiculous notion of ‘normal’.

Scope have some booklists available here: https://www.scope.org.uk/advice-and-support/storybooks-featuring-disabled-children/

There are some book lists here: https://www.mrsdscorner.com/60disabilitybooksforkids/

There are some really interesting points here https://booksforlittles.com/disability-normalization/ about the importance of careful selection of books with disabled characters so that stereotypes (e.g. burden, helplessness) are not reinforced unintentionally. There are also some great book recs too.

Representative toys are available. I love https://www.toylikeme.org/ and they also run workshops for schools.

Looking at our curriculum, do we include people with disabilities? There are so many inspiring people, who just happen to have a disability, including Stephen Hawking, Nick Vujicic, Frida Kahlo, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Esther Vergeer, Jack Carroll, Adelaide Knight, Noor Inayat Khan, Edith Cooper, Eva Gore-Booth… How many disabled people do we include and teach our children about?

I’d love to hear about how you are creating a fully inclusive learning environment and some of the texts or figures that you include.




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