Each day I consult with parents, extended family members, educators, and agency-directors, and often, I am left ponding the same question - whilst equality is a simple term in itself and appears straight forward, why is it so complex when it relates to people living with a disability?
Neurodivergent people quite often have additional needs - be they physical needs, sensory needs, or social and emotional needs. Maybe they require a quieter space to concentrate in, perhaps they require more time to complete an assigned task in the classroom, or maybe they require a set space to regulate their emotions to help them navigate the remainder of the school day.
These environmental and support adjustments required for neurodivergent people are merely adjustments they require in order to access and participate in their environment on the same basis as their neurotypical peers - to concentrate in class and receive an education, to engage in an extra-curricular activity and socialise with others, to participate in a team sport and develop interpersonal skills.
Each day, I am posed similar questions:
"If we make that adjustment for one student, we then have to make it for all our students"
"If we have a sensory area for that student, other children will want to enter the space"
"If we read to one student, that isn't fair on the other students who have to read for themselves"
"If we allow one student to have extra time, we need to allow all students extra time"
"If I let one child have extra time to complete their homework, that isn't fair on the other siblings"
Is it an interesting concept? - Yes. Is it correct? No, and here's why...
We are conditioned to believe that fair is equal. On the surface, it may seem a child is being given unfair advantage over another student in the classroom or another sibling in their home. This can be challenging to navigate at times although, I think a far greater concept is present - fair is not equal.
By giving the student who needs it extra time to complete a task, you are not disadvantaging a child who does not need extra time, by not giving them extra time.
By allowing a child who needs support in regulating their emotions, the opportunity to do that, you are not disadvantaging other students who can regulate their emotions on their own.
By allowing one sibling extra time to complete a task in the morning, you are not disadvantaging the other siblings. Why? Because they don't need extra time!
One Step Further
The implementation of reasonable adjustments for all students - whether they need them or they don't. If agency-wide or school-wide strategies were adopted, the environment would be far more inclusive for all students - neurodivergent students and their neurotypical peers. All students would have the opportunity to access a sensory area or a scribe - if in the event they needed it. The concept that a child requires several diagnosis to receive additional support is sad although, it is reflective of a much boarder issue on a macro level - what if a child is experiencing temporary challenges at home and could benefit from using a sensory space today? They aren't neurodivergent but they're still human, they still have bad days, and at times, they still need extra support.
Would making agency-wide or school-wide adjustments disadvantage anyone? No. Would it change the life of a student who needs them? Yes. Could it benefit many other students too? Yes.
Having a wheelchair accessible classroom makes it possible for a person who uses a wheelchair to access the room. Does the wheelchair accessible classroom make it harder for a child who doesn't use a wheelchair access their classroom? No. In fact, it would make it easier.
Having a designated sensory area would make it possible for a student to regulate their emotions and receive the same education as their peers. Would having the sensory area disadvantage any other student? No - In fact, they may benefit from it too.
Unfortunately, our schools - like many other departments our neurodivergent children are supported by, are faced with funding challenges, and in the current climate, supervising the cohort of children enrolled in the school is challenging, without being faced with additional spaces to supervise. Providing a quality education is now a far more complex assignment considering teacher shortages, the impact of the pandemic, pilled on top of a mirid of other challenges that impact our teachers and schools.
If you are a teacher of a neurodivergent child, I am sure you are highly experienced in explaining to other parents that their child is not being disadvantaged because of additional supports being provided to another student. If you a parent of a neurodivergent child, I am sure you are also 'seasoned' in explaining to other parents at netball or at the shopping centre, that you're child requires additional support.
Blaming our teachers, our community sporting coaches, or our children's support providers is not the answer - we are all living in the same society challenged by complex constraints. Making adjustments to suit the minority which generates a higher workload and higher levels of pressure and stress is not the answer. Working together to transform our society to be truly inclusive for every child? That is the answer.
Teaching the other siblings in the home and the other children in the classroom that some students need extra support to be able to do the things which they can already do is powerful. It's creating a next generation of young people who will one day be in positions of power and influence, who are exposed to neurodivergent people and attuned to their needs - is this not one of the greatest and most powerful gifts you could give your child?
Maybe by teaching our children and our students a new lens, the next generation of parents will be educated and informed on additional needs of other students. Maybe the next generation of teachers wont experience the same challenges you do. Maybe the next generation of leaders and policy makers will have exposure to neurodivergent children and their needs. Maybe the next generation of leaders will have the ground work done for them on leading the transformation to a society that is truly - inclusive.
What do you have the power to do today to contribute to movement towards a more inclusive society?
Maybe you were previously that parent who thought your child was being disadvantaged and you now have a new perspective? Maybe you're a teacher or a principal and you're thinking of new ways you can adapt your classroom or your school to be more inclusive? Maybe you're a person with a disability who isn't sure how you can help, but you are hoping others do?