This weekend an article in The Guardian newspaper caught my attention and gave me cause to despair about the ground we still have to cover in working towards a more just and inclusive society. Writing under a banner headline “What my autistic brother has taught me about fear, ignorance and shame,” the journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett describes how she was recently accosted by her boss who declared that he was fearful for the safety of his daughter when her brother who has been diagnosed as having autism, was present with her in the same playground. Rhiannon described her feelings of hurt and anger when realising that through ignorance of her brother’s needs, this man felt it necessary to express his anxieties about a young man who is completely innocent of any ill-feelings towards others.
The journalist continues her article by describing the negative experiences of others who have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, including Faruk Ali, a young man who was allegedly beaten by two police officers on the grounds that he was behaving in a suspicious manner outside of his home, and Josh a teenager who was handcuffed and forcibly removed from a public swimming pool when he didn’t understand what was required of him. Rhiannon ponders on what might be done to improve this situation. This might she suggests, include the training of police officers in order that they are sensitised to the needs of individuals who are perceived as different, whether this be as a result of their autism or other issues. But then, as she rightly states, this is not simply a matter of training police officers, it is much more about addressing the ignorance that is commonly encountered in many sections of the public.
Sadly this article and its subject matter came as no surprise when I read it yesterday. I recall when I was a head teacher numerous occasions when parents reported similar experiences to me. They recounted times when individuals had demonstrated fear, misunderstanding and ignorance about their children in a whole range of situations. Often this would be shown by simple acts of avoidance, such as crossing the road to prevent contact or moving their own children away in playgrounds or the park. At other times this might extend to making comments, such as the parent who reported to me that a woman had removed her children from a local stream where they were feeding bread to ducks with a very audible “let’s move further along the bank away from the nasty boy!” This particular parent of a child with Down syndrome told me that she had wanted to push this woman into the stream, but instead she just stood there and cried.
Fortunately, for every act born out of ignorance, such as those described in the Guardian article or that reported to me by a parent, there are others which show the kindness and consideration of people who may not always understand but want to ensure that they are demonstrating their decency. I recall for example the young man who on seeing me dealing with a pupil having an epileptic seizure on a school trip immediately came across and took off his coat to wrap around him, asking what else he might do to help. Or the lady who seeing me struggle, got off a train in a railway station to assist me to board with a student who had limited mobility. In my memory these simple acts of kindness far outweigh those negative experiences I have had when out with children, but maybe this is because as a teacher I was not so often placed in the situation that parents and carers face on a daily basis.
Whatever the extent of the problems that emanate from the lack of understanding of others, there is clearly an issue here that needs to be confronted. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett finished her Guardian article with this paragraph:-
“There was something else I felt that day, alongside the anger and the hurt from being told that my brother appeared dangerous. It was shame. Illogical and unwarranted shame. Shame that he and by extension we were different from the other ones and that that difference caused them discomfort. I never want to feel that way again, and nor should anyone else.”
Of all the issues that Rhiannon reported in her article it was the assertion that she felt shame that I found most distressing. What had she done to deserve feelings such as this? Far from feeling shame, I believe she should take pride in the fact that by using her skills as a journalist and demonstrating her simple humanity as a sibling, she is bringing this issue to the attention of a wider public. Furthermore, rather than simply accepting the effects of ignorance she is taking direct action on behalf of others who may feel less confident to confront the bigotry and thoughtlessness that they have experienced.
Ignorance and fear are often founded upon lack of familiarity. It is still a fact that many children go through their schooling with hardly any contact with others who are described as having disabilities or special educational needs. Where do they have an opportunity to gain an understanding of the great diversity and individuality which exists within our populations? It is to be hoped that as more children attend schools that are inclusive in nature and provide opportunities for a celebration and appreciation of such diversity, the ignorance that leads to such negative attitudes will lessen. Whilst it is unlikely that we will ever fully remove the discrimination towards individuals who appear different from ourselves, it may just be that the ways in which we educate our children and organise our schools can make a significant contribution towards the eradication of prejudice and ignorance.
A link to an on-line version of Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s Guardian article is given below.