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Posts Tagged ‘disability

This is a guest post written by: Jonathan Andrews

A survey released to 5 live Breakfast has found that more than three-quarters of disabled students and graduates are afraid to let potential employers know about their disability. It is a classic dilemma for people with disabilities – and it’s one I’ve been facing myself.

Jonathan Andrews

I’m in my third year of an English degree at King’s College London – in fact, it’s less than two months until my dissertation is submitted and my undergraduate days come to an end. I’ve decided on my next step – a career in commercial law – and have already secured two summer vacation schemes at top firms in the hope of obtaining a training contract.

Unlike most applicants, I’m disabled. I have an autistic spectrum disorder, as well as symptoms of dyspraxia.

When I first committed myself to commercial law about a year and a half ago, I was very concerned about being open on application forms, and throughout the interview/assessment process.

My friends and family almost unanimously advised me against being open – or to “disclose”, as they put it – because of a fear that this information would be used to sift me out at the first stage of the application process.

The way they saw it was that no company would want the hassle of employing me – they’d be scared about the effects of autism on my work, and wouldn’t want to “waste” money on adjustments when they could instead hire someone who didn’t need them.

Everyone with autism is affected in different ways – I have difficulty gauging social interactions, such as how long to speak for and how long I should maintain eye contact. Contrary to the stereotype of avoiding looking at someone’s eyes, I often find my eyes can linger too long and make people uncomfortable.

I find it hard working out if somebody wants to interject or has grown bored of my talking but, unlike people with more severe autism, I can read tone of voice very well. I’m not so good at controlling my own tone and can sometimes come across as angry or blunt when I don’t mean to be.

My family and friends made some good points. I do mention my disability when applying for big corporates, but am still hesitant about disclosing to small and medium-sized businesses as they usually don’t have teams dedicated to disability research and understanding like larger firms, or might not be able to afford adjustments.

After attending a number of disability employment events, I was able to meet city graduate recruiters at large firms – including the legal, banking and energy sectors – and learn first-hand about their approach to disability and the appropriate adjustments.

So when applying for commercial law jobs, I’m now a lot more confident about disclosing that I’m on the autistic spectrum because I’m assured the information won’t be used to discriminate against me. Instead, I’m told this information will be used positively to allow me to perform to my full potential if I get the role.

Often I will only ask that my interviewers and assessors be made aware of my autism, and how it might affect my performance in an interview, allowing them to look past certain traits, avoid misinterpreting how I come across, and focus instead on the content of my answers.

If recruiters know, they then have an explanation for behaviour they’d otherwise find odd. Revealing that you are aware of this too will paint you as a confident, mature person with attention to detail and it will also show you have an interest in self-improvement.

That being said, this doesn’t mean I have no concerns at all about being open in my future career. The recent Great with Disability report that reveals that more than three-quarters of disabled graduates are afraid to let potential employers know about their disability doesn’t surprise me.

While I’m convinced that being open makes applying for graduate and entry-level roles easier, I am concerned about the low numbers of openly disabled people in higher levels of the professions; in particular, the apparent lack of any openly autistic partners or counsels in the legal sector.

It might be that nobody with autism has ever reached these positions. It’s more likely that they have, but chose to remain quiet about their impairment or may not have been diagnosed.

Either way, without open role models, I sometimes worry whether I will be able to reach those top jobs, and wonder what it is that is holding some disabled people back.

Though large law firms might have a great attitude, top jobs in the legal sector are largely client-facing, and I can’t help but worry that client concerns about disability play a large part here – so a law firm’s internal positive disability policy may not help.

I’d like employers to understand the benefits of disability – it can make people a lot more determined to achieve goals and the challenges it throws up often force us to become good problem-solvers. A different way of looking at the world is vital. Recent evidence shows how diversity – of experience, background and belief – benefits business. But if people aren’t open about their needs, then they can’t perform at their best.

I choose to tell potential employers about my disability so that, should I require any adjustments, they’ll be available – and I can walk into work and spend all my energy on doing my job rather than hiding who I am.

We can be as aware of autism as we are of the sun and moon, but this really only means that you’re on to it, you know it exists. It’s a good start; please know this – But we haven’t achieved anything until that awareness then evolves into something.  And that ladies and gentlemen is when we’ve transformed potential into a sort of action which then makes way for our children and the adults they will become, playing a valuable role in society, and for our society to see themselves as the beneficiary.

The thing is, autism awareness acceptance month has ended but it will never end for me. So, I ask that you please allow me to express my grave concern over the following…

Teacher Training

I’m a firm believer that there’s a need for major improvements to our teacher training program. I’ll just come out with it… It is my belief that there are teachers who have a less than positive attitude towards students with disabilities and their inclusion in general education classrooms – And this is not necessarily good or bad but… Actually, it is bad – But I say this, not to lay blame at their feet because I believe that a lot of it (not all) has to do with their training. Think about it. They are the ones who set the tone of their class. This means the success of inclusion of students with disabilities will depend on the prevailing attitudes of the teacher as they interact with these students. The implications here are far-reaching.

In our current program the special education course is what I would consider “weak”. Added to that, it’s optional. There is still such a huge separation between “regular” and “special” education with regards to our trainee program. If this orientation continues how are they ever going to get more opportunities to integrate materials taught or get a chance to experience the transdisciplinary nature of education as it should be practiced in classrooms today?

The fact that many of our autistic kids (and other disabilities) are just aging out of the school system, though certainly disappointing, should not be a surprise to anyone who examines what actually happens in our schools, and compare it to what research in other countries have clearly shown to be effective in educating these students. For quite some time now I’ve been urging the Ministry to begin collecting (accurate) data which they can then use to drive decision-making. To date, this is still not being done. Little productive change has eventuated at the policy level, much less at the classroom level.

So, what does all this mean? Teachers should be prepared for the students they are going to teach. When this does not happen both students and teachers are being setup for failure.

Ultimately though, I believe we should give every bad teacher an opportunity to train to get better, and if they don’t, they should be fired. Yes teachers, you’re special, but you’re not that special.

Ideology

In Antigua & Barbuda we have an “inclusion by default policy”. This means, that yes; officials may very well say that some students with disabilities are in the general classrooms in various schools – And this for them is inclusion. However, administrators and teachers interpret it as they choose, sometimes based on personal ideologies, and often to the detriment of students, because there are no Ministry checks and balances to ensure the intent of the “so-called” policy is respected.

So let me be clear… Inclusion is not a school or is it a class, or a student. What it is though, is a belief that regardless of labels, ALL students should be members of the general education community, having access to the full range of curriculum options.

To be honest, there is still some controversy over whether or not inclusion is appropriate, for example, for someone like my son (who’s autistic). However, in my opinion, I sometimes think that those who are not in favor of this are overlooking what is at the heart of the inclusion model. Don’t get me wrong, my philosophy is not inclusion at all costs. However, I think students must receive needed supports and services within the context of the regular classroom. When these accommodations are insufficient to insure educational success, then students can be placed in more restrictive settings. I also think it’s important for the students to have the opportunity to interact with nondisabled peers.

While I’m on the topic of inclusion; the “dunce class” – And you, yes you; don’t even pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about. The “dunce class” in some of our public schools is no substitute for inclusion or special education either. What a shame, the way our kids are bullied, belittled, branded and forgotten because of a diagnosed/undiagnosed learning disorder.

We need to get away from this thinking that students, and this is students with or without disabilities, fall into neat categories of educational need. It just isn’t so.

The State of the Union

Yes; I’m going there.

To begin, let me state that teacher-bashing does not equal reform and I want to avoid it at all costs. So if you’re a teacher and you’re reading this, I hope you see it for what it is – A campaign for improved educational provisions for those children who have been excluded from or marginalized within our education system because of their disability.

So yes; you have a right to stand up and demand more/better for your members and I will support you on that – But – Demand more and better for our children as well. Contrary to popular belief (and not that this makes it right) you’re not the only “public servants” who are underpaid and overworked. I’m certain many of your members are concerned about this, but I have to be honest; you’re silence on this matter has been deafening. Teaching for the children is still a part of your mission, right?

Resourcing

Let me be the first to acknowledge that yes, funding is an issue – But as I’ve said before, in some instances it is not always a matter of more money; it is a matter of smarter money. We absolutely cannot continue to throw our hands up in the air and say there is no money so we can’t do anything.

First of all I think we need someone within the Ministry to “own” this; Special Education. Not that everyone don’t all play a role at the end of the day but someone has to “own” it – And overtime give that person a team to work with. This cannot be someone who’s already taxed by their workload in the Ministry. This is unfair to our students, teacher and the overworked employee because that person cannot give the Special Education the attention it deserves.

What the Ministry of Education needs to understand is that they have to take this matter seriously. Not just in thought but in deed. Not that attitude will change overnight if they do but I think it sets the stage for that change to occur. It’s a ripple effect. “We don’t have enough money” is no longer acceptable or defensible for bad educational policies.

I’m disappointed at the state of affairs with regards to special education but I’m not surprised.

Stand Your Ground System

We have a sort of “stand your ground” special education system in Antigua & Barbuda. This means when parents want to get any help in the public system they must be able to speak-up, stand their ground and know which doors to knock on, especially when help is initially denied. And when the public system fails, families with financial means turn to private options to rescue their kids. But the vast majority of our students with autism/other disabilities in our public schools don’t have that luxury. When they complain about inadequate supports to assure academic progress, they’re told that’s all the funds the Ministry has and that’s all they should expect. End of story.

As I write my final column for Autism Awareness Acceptance Month, I just want people to know that at the end of the day, no parent who has ever watched their child or another child struggle would ever want to deny an opportunity to help a child in crisis find the support necessary to thrive and succeed. My heart goes out to families whose children have been failed because of the public system. It kills me when other families approach me and ask for help because their children are suffering and they don’t know who to talk to/afraid to “stand their ground”. These are things that they know deep down goes against everything that’s right and fair with regards to the education of their child. Let me tell you – I sometimes struggle to find the quality that, thank God, is still somewhere within me to listen and not speak my mind in very unprintable terms. Because the irony of the situation is; that’s my kid too that they’re doing this to.

Solutions that tackle the above problems within our public schools are what we need, because these will help all students who are struggling, not just a few. The private schools are good to have but guess what? They’re private! They cost! And the tuitions are generally outside of the reach of the average family. Plus ask anyone of these schools who has a special education component as a part of their offering and they will tell you that they’re overwhelmed with parents (those who can pay the tuition and many who can’t) wanting to register their kids. And a school does not a policy make.

What we need are solutions that are imbedded in the public system from the outset. Yes they will take more effort but they will identify the real barriers, generate more buy-in, serve ALL children and pay the maximum long-term dividends for all students.

What we have now is a system where we do nothing about problem, provide no intervention, and end up with a significant group of disillusioned students who have lost contact with the curriculum. How about focusing our attention and resources on emphasizing the resolution of our mistakes? So this sequence of not chain of initial failure, embarrassment, disappointment, detachment and finally dropping out, that is so predictable and ongoing, needs to come to an end. Stop addressing it as if they’re all separate issues; they are not.

We still have many folks who are in positions which can effect change but they view autism and other disabilities as a leeches on the public school system who will suck resources as they are forced (by the way, this would be by our own laws) to serve our kids.

I’ve said many times before that if any of these people would just stop to think about what it will eventually cost ALL of us in society, if we do not do everything in our power while they’re in their childhood to produce a physically and emotionally healthy, self-sufficient adult. After all, we raise them to be men and women not children.

Our law says education for ALL. Not some. Not for those who can afford to pay – But for ALL children – One that’s appropriate and in the least restrictive environment.

So when we demand, in the name of our children, education over lip service, we have nothing to apologize for.

 


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