“The biggest misconception we face is that people with a disability need our sympathy. They actually need equality. Sure, they need some extra resources and some understanding, but letting people be part of it and helping them gain some self confidence goes a long way.”
They’re powerful words from someone who began advocating for her son even before he was born.
That’s because the vast majority of Down Syndrome babies don’t make it into the world – early detection makes for an excruciating decision for parents as early as 18 weeks. When my neighbour Ange tells me their decision to continue with her pregnancy lead to negativity from both medical staff and acquaintances, I’m filled with a bewildering array of emotions.
One in seven people around the world lives with disability, 80% of them in the world’s poorest countries. I remain largely ignorant of the reality of their lives, even here in Australia.
What does it mean to really value the strengths as well as work with the vulnerabilities of people living with disability? Practically speaking, what makes the most difference in terms of a positive future? Is it possible that some of the biggest problems people with disabilities face are… the attitudes of people without disabilities?
“Ash is a laid back, happy little three year old attending preschool and doing really well.” Ange tells me when I ask about her experiences. “In terms of the practical things, we learnt early on about the importance of early intervention: speech, physiotherapy, occupational therapy. The funding coming into play has been great – there’s amazing support services out there for us. We’ve had other parents help us increase our knowledge and hold our hands. And the ipad has changed so much for us – apps that improve both gross and fine motor skills give Ash choice and freedom. He’s improving out of sight.”
“What we really want is for Ash to be given a chance to be amongst it, not pushed aside.” Ange says. “Seeing people with disabilities out there in the community – children in schools, people in jobs, contributing – that’s what changes opinions more than anything.”
And this is where it really matters. Minds need changing as much as anything else. It’s this level of inclusion – which target both the person living with the disability and his or her community – that UnitingWorld in partnership with the Free Wesleyan Church is striving to help foster in Tonga.
Kindergarten teachers are now being given training on the best ways to include children with disabilities, helping set goals that focus on strengths instead of simply sidelining students. It’s a major step forward for a culture that has traditionally struggled to include those who don’t fit the mould of what has been considered “acceptable.”
“Although the progress of the children with disabilities is encouraging, what’s really exciting is the reaction of the children without disabilities,” says Project Co-ordinator Amelia Tuiónetoa . “Just by including children with special needs in the kindergartens we’re now seeing the other children no longer regard those with disabilities as different or to be avoided. They’re just other children in the sandpit.”
It’s this experience ‘in the sandpit’ that Bronwyn Fraser, Manager of Peacebuilding & Livelihoods Programs (Pacific) is hoping UnitingWorld can help replicate.
“The Tongan Government and local disability advocates are becoming pro-active in recognising the need for policies that are inclusive of people with disability.” Bron says. “Up until now, as is the case in many Pacific countries, seeing people with disabilities thrive hasn’t really been a priority. Often they’re excluded and ignored. We’re developing training workshops on disability inclusive early childhood education. An open forum will help teachers with skills and help Government and non-government agencies begin to engage in a conversation of change.”
Already, children like Ash who might otherwise live on the edge of society are seeing the world open up. And significantly, it isn’t really even about the provision of resources like ipads, so much as it is about shifting perceptions – encouraging people to view ability differently.
“Increasingly, no matter where we are in the world, it’s a case of seeing people as having strengths instead of defining them by perceived limitations. It’s about looking at what deficits we have as a society that need to be overcome in order to let those strengths shine.” Bron says. “Sometimes it’s something material that’s lacking, but very often it’s attitudes that need work, like understanding and acceptance. Often we’re the ones who need to change, not the person with what society regards as the disability.”
UnitingWorld is dedicated to helping keep people everywhere in the picture: through inclusive training for teachers in kindergartens in Tonga; through providing access to small business loans for people with disabilities so they can earn a living for themselves and their families. To find out more click here