Education

The Opportunity of Adversity – Aimee Mullins

Aimee Mullins speaking at TED.

Aimee says it all, need I say more?

“Adversity isn’t an obstacle that we need to get around in order to resume living our life. It’s part of of our life.”

“Our responsibility is not simply shielding those we care for from adversity, but preparing them too meet it well.”

“There’s an important difference, and distinction, between the objective medical fact of my being and amputee, and the subjective societal opinion of whether or not I’m disabled.”

“We have to be careful that we don’t put the first brick in a wall that will actually disable somebody.”

“By not treating the wholeness of a person, by not acknowledging their potency, we are creating another ill on top of whatever natural struggle they might have. We are effectively grading someone’s worth to our community. So, we need to see through the pathology and into the range of human capability.”

“Adversity is just change that we haven’t adapted ourselves to yet.”

“No prognosis can account for how powerful (could be) the determinant of the quality of someone’s life.”

…And, as others have said…

“I think that the only true disability, is a crushed spirit.”

 

Sibling Issues

So, all of my three children are blind. Are there sibling issues? Yes, but not the kind that families experiencing disabilities usually have.

Let me explain.

Number two and number three were reminiscing about each time someone’s fingers or feet were jammed in a car door. I added the time I jammed number one’s hand in the hatch door of a new vehicle. I have heard them ask each other to look at something (when they were quite young), expecting the other to see it as a sighted adult in their world would – without hands.

Our issues involved teaching them that, though they could request sighted assistance from their parents, they could not expect the same from their siblings. It may have been insensitive for a sighted person not to inform them that they were closing a car door, but it was insensitive of each of them not to warn each other of the same.

So much is learned by observation, and we are inclined to presume things will be learned automatically.

There are some who don’t get the opportunity to observe much to learn from (or what has been observed is unhealthy or inappropriate).

Teaching, though, doesn’t have to be a complex lesson. It may come in the form of conversation, a shared task, verbal guidance through an experience. Some need this into adulthood because they missed out on it while maturing, others may always need some form of guided instruction, even if just verbal or hands-on information. Not because they’re unable or unwilling to learn, but because the way the world, or me, or you, or we teach and model doesn’t fit with how the other is geared to learn.

Of course, as my children have grown to be young adults (with a much broader knowledge base than as little ones), it’s difficult to ‘switch off’ the teaching talk. Much to their chagrin and/or frustration. Sorry kids!

Guest Post – Child Number 3

*prepare for a random rant that probably goes all over the place and makes hardly any sense*

So in English we are currently studying a unit on protest songs and poems. The other day as we were analysing a song by Archie Roach about the stolen generation, our teacher was explaining the meaning of the word ‘prejudice’. She said it is when a person has misconceptions about another person because they are from another country, and that was all.

I understand that we didn’t have time to go into a lot of detail, and maybe she does think it can be for other things as well as a person’s nationality, but I personally thought that was a bit too narrow. The definition in the Oxford Dictionary says: “A preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. Unjust behaviour formed from such a basis”. If someone has a prejudice it could be because someone has a disability, or because they have a different religious belief to another person, or perhaps even because they were educated differently to somebody else or absolutely anything. She made it sound like a synonym for racism which I don’t believe is quite right. I think the other problem when someone has a prejudice is they don’t tend to realise they have one.

I guess this got to me a little because of past personal experiences where people have made assumptions and tried to help/teach in a way that was actually quite unhelpful or inappropriate. Please realise I’m not asking for sympathy and I understand I’ll get this kind of thing practically all my life, but if people presume they know what they’re doing all the time or aren’t happy to change their ways then how is that helping the future generation of adults (as in my age level and below) to be socially acceptable and treat everyone equally?

There. I’m done now! If you have any thoughts on the topic and feel like commenting please don’t hesitate as I’d be interested to hear what others have to say. Also note that I’m not trying to have ago at the teacher mentioned above.

Very mature response from one’s child. Very proud mother. ‘Nuff said!

 

The Seed

A seed was planted in good soil, unseen by anyone, in a personal act of love by one who desired to watch it grow and flourish and become what it was designed and planted to be.

The seed began to shoot and sprout up through the soil that had been prepared by the sower.

The sower then employed a variety of people to feed and nurture and protect and make space for the seed. The seed, once dead, now alive with fresh green growth, full of vibrancy and enthusiasm to become and produce all it was designed and destined to be.

 

The bank manager knew that growth comes from financial investment. So he surrounded and covered the small green shoots with money. But the sun could not break through to give the shoots the vital nourishment they required to continue to grow.

The librarian knew that growth comes from reading and gaining new information. She loved books of good quality so she surrounded and covered the small green shoots and the money with fine leather-bound books full of knowledge. But the rain could not penetrate the beautiful leather to moisten the good soil and nourish the seed with its roots beneath the surface, which was necessary for its growth.

The vermin controller knew that growth comes when protected from predators. So he covered the small green shoots and the money and the books with wire and a baited wooden trap to keep at bay and catch any that would come to devour the shoots or dig up the seed before it could grow to maturity. But the shoots were smothered and had no space to feed and grow.

The agronomist knew that growth comes with the absence of weeds. So she sprayed over the small green shoots and the money and the books and the wire and wooden traps. But the good soil became poisoned and made the roots and shoots sick.

 

And beneath all the good intentions, the new plant began to wither.

 

The sower was watching the seed he planted and those he employed to feed and nurture and protect and make space for the seed to grow…

…and his heart was breaking.

The sower had prepared the soil, the space, and the nourishment for the seed to grow to maturity as it was designed to, but chose to share the joy and fulfillment of contributing to its growth with others.

 

The sower called together the bank manager, the librarian, the vermin controller and the agronomist to discuss the withering of the plant.

To the bank manager, the sower explained the need for sunlight to reach the shoots to nourish them. Though he meant well, the new plant was malnourished.

To the librarian, the sower explained that the beautiful books prevented the rain from moistening the soil. Though she meant well, the new plant was dying of thirst.

To the vermin controller, the sower explained that the protective measures were smothering the plant. Though he meant well, the new plant was suffocating.

To the agronomist, the sower explained that poisoning the weeds in turn poisoned the soil in which the seed was planted. Though she meant well, the new plant was sick with poison.

 

“I chose each of you for the good you might contribute to the growth of this seed I have planted. But you have each been working independently instead of interdependently. The librarian can contribute to an informed approach to vermin and weed control, plant and soil nourishment. The bank manager can contribute to financial provision and management for this education and the necessary resources. The vermin controller and agronomist can use their new education and resources to promote the plant’s growth instead of its demise.”

 

As each one stepped back and observed the tender plant, they were able to recognize what its needs might be. In turn they also enquired each of the other to learn from observations they may not have recognized, or had prior knowledge of to have even been considered.

Most importantly…

…as a team in constant communication , those employed for service to the growth of the new plant – in fact to service of the plant itself – began to listen for and hear what the little plant was telling them. They heard and could see when the plant needed moisture, or sunlight or protection or space; because they were attending to the needs of the seed instead of what they wanted to give or to do.

 

The little plant grew tall and strong and was borne of new seed so that more plants could grow, providing clean air and beauty to enjoy.

 

The workers and the sower lived with much joy and with a profound and unfathomable sense of accomplishment as they witnessed the growth, and maturity, and provision, and beauty of the little seed, which became great.

 

Gina Schmidt 26/6/2014

Positive Educational Experiences

So, thought I would share some of the positive experiences we have had with the formal education of our children. From local school, education department, and/or blind-specific educators and instructors. Not all-encompassing by any means, but a taste of some of the good stuff.

When child number one began life in formal education, the school accessed funding and attended to every recommendation of the Orientation and Mobility Instructor in regard to making sure the grounds of the school were reasonably suitable and safe (to the best of my knowledge).

When child number two began school, the teacher approached a local group and spoke to them in request of funds to make up a short-fall enabling the purchase of a particular piece of equipment; mentioning that for our children to share in one of these pieces of equipment was the equivalent of asking sighted siblings to share one pencil. Brilliant.

Child number three had a role in the last school production before heading to secondary school. The staff worked with this child to ensure that this one would be able to enter and exit the stage independently throughout the show. So well was this accomplished, that another member of the local community commented to someone that they had thought there was a blind student in the play, which one?

When child number one began secondary school and the art class were drawing around their shoes/feet, the teacher had prepared for our child to wrap wire around this one’s foot making a sculpture of it. This staff member also sought out and purchased equipment that would enable safe but more independent use of some equipment (bringing grateful tears to my eyes at my first parent/teacher interview).

A secondary school teacher sought out equipment that would make for a smoother road in the production of the curriculum in our children’s preferred format. Another secondary school teacher automatically produced comments on corrected work in a format independently accessible to our eldest (eliminating the need to rely on an aide or parent to read them), without being asked. One teacher also sought input from another teacher, who had previously taught our children, for ideas – without being instructed to.

We have had instructors and teachers from ‘blindness agencies’ go out of their way to serve our family. Working at providing time with male instructors in a female-dominated environment. Sacrificing time to, not equal but, provide somewhat more time than we had been receiving as ‘country/rural clients’. Phone instruction for our children and debriefing for me, the parent, on occasion. Time for conversation and incidental learning for me as a parent, and the validation of seeking my input into the services provided.

There is much to be thankful for, and which has been appreciated by our family. No one and no system is perfect (which may be reflected on in the near future also). But imperfections and mishaps, though they need to be addressed, do not take away from times of great provision, consideration and even excelling.

I am indeed grateful.

 

Same, But Different

So, child number one is blind. Actual diagnosis not until five months of age, Early Childhood educator at about six months of age, physiotherapy etc. from ten months…so probably many of the tactile fears and things are because we didn’t know about such things yet, or what to do about them.

So, child number two has soft toys around her from birth, to ‘prevent’ fear of furry things – living or otherwise – in case this one’s blind as well. Yep, ok then, lots of real-life stuff that is soft, prickly, rough etc. as well as smooth and firm and comfortable, lots of touching the grass. Does this make a difference? Not a bit! Even more fear than the first.

So, child number three has therapies from birth (from mother, then professionals at home etc.) but we’ll just introduce everything we can think of without too much concern. What do you suppose is the first thing this child looks for on a visitor (known or unknown)? Their hair, their dog, their anything fluffy and soft! Except brushes, they’ll still take some working on, and grass; grass is not fun. Which is the only child really interested in a guide dog? You guessed it, number three. And what was number three’s favourite gift as a little one? A hair extension similar to the hair of the aunt who gifted it. How favourite, you ask? Taken to bed, in the car, on visits, left in the bag at kindergarten…everywhere.

What did we learn? Individuality.

Some things can be learned; some are innate; some are healthy; some are damaging; sometimes it matters; sometimes it matters not.

Oh please, please look into each child – each person – to see who they are, who they might become and how according to their individual design. Don’t look to make a carbon copy of yourself, or a standardised model of humanity, or be afraid of what is not alike to you now. Each one and each community has the great potential to feed off, learn, teach, model and become their own beauty. Enjoy and know each other, avoid replication.

Equality and Equity

So, my last child just completed her last NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy). Whew, are we glad that’s over!

While I was on school council at one of our children’s schools (mainstream government school) I enquired as to whether there was any way of  obtaining comparative information from the NAPLAN for vision impaired students around the state and the country. The principal said that there wasn’t. My children were not obligated to complete the NAPLAN because they are blind, but that would be another difference between them and their peers; and a ‘testing’ environment experience they would not have been able to learn from. Over the years though, we have had one NAPLAN go ‘missing’ completely, one not assessed properly because some of the responses were not in the appropriate format (they were in braille, my child’s preferred format – and only possible one for mathematics, music or languages other than english, “LOTE”), and a third followed up by a very diligent teacher who recognised the assessment of my son as not reflecting what she knew to be his level of ability and achievement (again an issue with no provision for his braille submission’s appropriate assessment, I believe).

Much of what they are assessed on is visual, and the reflection on the Education Department is an implication of no interest or expectation that my children’s outcomes from being in the public system are of importance to the department or the future contribution (or lack-there-of) my children’s impact may have on society; including the contribution they may/will make to the retirement and end-of-life environment government ministers and educators will experience.

Equality and equity are both necessary. My understanding is that equality will give us all the same things; equity will make things fair, just. I realise that this is very difficult to accomplish, especially in an environment where we desire to meet the needs of all, and to do this justly and fairly for ALL is a mammoth task of time and resources.

I’m led to reflect in all of this on the differences between: public and private education, home and institutional education, integration in the mainstream and disability/health or giftedness/remedial-specific education, distance and face-to-face education. To be equitable, I believe all should be on offer, as standardising may be economically efficient but it denies individuality of person, circumstance, belief, value…and discourages the healthy social outcome of diversity and unity as opposed to conformity, and growth both personally and corporately from differences of relational interaction. Having said that, many of these growth opportunities can be frightening, time consuming, financially costly and will require a much more personal, intentional and discerning observation and assessment method. There are places where this is done, but they are few and far between and not readily accessed or publicised.

We expect to be able to choose our career, but circumstances may dictate what it will be. We expect to choose our place of habitation, but circumstances may dictate where it will be. We don’t always get what we expect, or prefer, or even require. But shouldn’t we develop the desire and willingness to try to offer equality and equity? I expect my children to live in a society that does not cater for them automatically, as is true now. They accommodate for the sighted world every day; they submit their school and university work in the teacher or lecturer’s preferred format (in primary school they produced a braille and print copy of nearly everything); they will have to expect that uncovered man-holes may not have been fenced off; they expect we sighted folk to get our left and right mixed up when directing (they do occasionally as well). I’m curious as to why those of us who comfortably live in the mainstream and rarely have to alter the way we prefer to ‘do things’, balk at the slightest suggestion that we accommodate for someone who accommodates for us every day of their lives. I’m not just talking about blindness or disability either! What about different cultures from our own, a perceived different status (I don’t like that word) from our own, someone from a different town or state, a different age group…the list could be endless.

If only we could all embrace the attitude of teachability, being malleable and willingly conscientious to consider another as I go about my day. It is possible, I see it happen. But not as often as I’d like, I guess. Offering a choice is a good start, instead of demand or guilt-ridden compliance.

Just a few thoughts.

Response or Respect

Guest post by my daughter!

This morning I went to the office to sign the private study sheet (a compulsory thing for VCE students when they have free periods). As I approached the office, I noticed that a teacher was there sorting something out with the office lady. So, treating this as a waiting in line kind of situation, I waited for her to finish. She then said to me: “Are you right?” I said: “I’m just here to sign the private study thing”. She responded: “Well, ask – don’t just stand there”, to which I replied (as gently and politely as I could, but perhaps somewhat indignantly): “I was waiting for you”. (No response).
Response or respect?
I believe that being assertive is important – but when one knows that someone ahead of them is speaking/dealing with somebody it is common courtesy to wait, is it not?
I do not post this (to treat it) like a diary, I also realise that this may seem a vague and perhaps generally boring point of discussion, but I think that the request to “speak up” is commonly said to people with disabilities, in circumstances where we would expect any other person to wait; be polite etc. So I would be interested in people’s thoughts (I’ve written a number of essays in the last fortnight and I think it’s about time someone else had a go!)
“Assertiveness is important, but respect is more so.” Discuss.

Hello, Is Anyone There?

I’ve just listened to an interview on the ‘Open House’ podcast with Dr. Christine Durham titled, Unlocking My Brain. Dr. Durham has an acquired brain injury as a result of a car accident, and talks about her recovery and experiences since her accident. She is clearly extremely diligent, insightful and in tune with herself and her surroundings, even amongst the confusion of brain injury and difficulty communicating. She completed her Master’s and a PHD after her accident!

A few things stood out for me as she described her experiences and journey thus far, and her altered but marvellous abilities and processes that have steered her toward such a magnificent level of recovery and insight. She mentioned more than once the shame she felt at not being “a proper person” and the all-encompassing pain not known or seen by outsiders, together with trying to find “Christine” (herself) either at home or at university or teaching at school.

Because she couldn’t communicate initially (and she nutted out her own forms of communication with half her tongue missing) things were done to her and expected of her without considering her pain may have been greater or different than another patient’s, or that she may not understand what was wrong with her brain, or that she was thinking and feeling things even when not communicating anything. It seems all but one doctor made Christine feel she had no hope. Her hope began to rise at her own accomplishments through her pain, ingenuity, and supportive husband, coupled with this one doctor who said she had the choice to learn independence or stay at home – acknowledging that whichever choice she made it was her’s to make. She sat in university lectures hearing gobbly-gook until something started to make sense. She returned to the classroom teaching without writing, guiding her students in other creative ways, and she began and completed a PHD on acquired brain injury profiting from the experiences of others along the way as well.

I’m not going to throw stones, because I can be guilty of assumption as much as the next person, but Christine’s negative experience seems to have been compounded, even exaggerated or extended due to presumption or transferring one’s own experience onto her as the patient rather than thinking outside the box in an endeavour to find out what her experiences and abilities might actually have been. If someone is reacting in a way that I would feel inappropriate for me, or even for them, perhaps I need first to consider as many of the possibilities as to why they may react this way. Possibilities that would never be true of me included.

When a child who might be classed as being on the autism spectrum is being “educated” in an open learning environment and is screaming and rocking or hitting from under a table, perhaps they are in excruciating pain and in sensory overload from the electric cooking equipment in one part of the building , the music in another, and reading aloud in another. As opposed to the presumed misbehaviour when compared to the teacher or another student. Perhaps the student who is blind is frustrated because they are constantly instructed to “learn to speak up” if not getting the teacher’s attention, when in fact other students don’t have to distract the teacher to get attention. Perhaps the person who has had a stroke would like to take longer to get to the next room independently rather than more quickly with someone pushing them in a wheelchair; they may also wish for you to sit and have a conversation with them that takes much of your time because you have to listen attentively and you both have to repeat yourselves, but they wish for you to know what they are thinking and feeling (or even that they do in fact think and feel).

Getting to know people takes time, lots of time. It requires letting go of assumptions, prejudices, insecurities and pride; and embracing vulnerability, humility, one’s own weaknesses, and an interest in someone else’s experiences, opinions, needs and desires. It’s a taxing thing, but much less of a destruction to one’s own soul than guarding, retaining, defending, justifying, focussing and absorption in one’s own familiarity without scrutiny and self-examination.

Oh to grow and learn every day I’m alive!

Ability, Intelligence, Education, Parenting

I have just watched a TED talk by Ken Robinson, Bring On The Learning Revolution.

I have heard many teachers say that they and parents are in partnership in educating our children. I’ve witnessed a much smaller number of them actually modelling their belief in and value of that statement. Another often-stated but not-as-often modelled belief or value is that we all (including each child) are individuals, and diverse.

Ken’s talk resonated with me for a number of reasons, as have many other groups and movements that are modelling the knowledge and understanding of whole-person and whole-community development; Mainly Music Men’s Shed’s and Kid’s Hope to name a few.

Observing what someone is interested in and then engaging with them where they are, and taking them further in their experiences (and consequently ourselves) is the best way to teach and to learn. Children learn this way in their early years at home so why do we change that method of learning, unless it is to achieve conformity or make the life of the educator easier. I am fully aware that educators are so busy already as are families, but could it be that this seems too difficult or time consuming because we view it as adding to our current method of formal education rather than a whole new way of thinking, educating and interacting; or perhaps a return to a less “intellectualised” but more holistically productive learning experience. As I’ve observed some families, and many of the educators of my children, I’ve witnessed their seeming astonishment that the children they wish to “educate” are inattentive, disengaged, even hostile.

What is it we value as productive? Achieving a particular person or groups goals for all, or encouraging each member of our families and communities to reach their own potential, within their own unique design, in the time it takes rather than in the time I’m willing to contribute to said potential? Guided learning is necessary, I learn from those who have been where I’m heading or fulfilled what I’m seeking to achieve. Although I will learn these things in relation to my unique design, experience, passion, age, culture, and…relationship to my educator.

I think that relationship also has a huge role to play in our learning. The best communicators develop a rapport with their audience, a positive relationship. I think that too many educators are fulfilling a task, achieving a goal, advancing a career; we learn from people we have a relationship with. Not necessarily the most intimate, but positive or rewarding in some way. The teachers that were the most engaging for me were the ones I felt connected to in some way, sometimes through humour, sometimes a connection outside of school, similar interests…The best teachers I have seen in my children’s classrooms are the ones who seem to understand or see into the personality of the child. This has included their tastes and family, fears and ease or difficulty with the school system – and they have adjusted, accommodated accordingly. This is possible, I have seen it happen spontaneously by some and I believe it can be taught and modelled and encouraged for others. But it will take quite a shift in thinking and a fairly large dose of empathy.

Ken Robinson mentioned the comment of a friend, “You know, a three year old is not half a six year old!” I would venture to say that a three year old is not another three year old known to you either. Nor is one boy or girl another boy or girl. Each sibling in a family is not the same as the others. And for those with a diagnosis of some kind, each is not the same as another…and each has their own potential to realise, as themselves. I will be advanced along my journey to reaching full potential too, as I walk alongside those I can encourage along their own journey. How fulfilling, holistic!

I’ll finish with a quote from Ken Robinson on TED:

 Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability. At the heart of our challenge is to reconstitute our understanding of ability and of intelligence.