STICKS AND STONES: Disability awareness in schools

→ Do you remember the first time you met a person with an intellectual disability (ID)?
→ Do you remember the preconceived ideas you had about people with ID?
→ Do you remember the names people with ID were called? (spa, simple, mentaller, etc.)
If you are not acquainted with anyone with ID and you don’t work in the disability area, the answers to those questions still give a lot of food for thought and reflection by Michael Teehan, Sunbeam House Services, Co. Wicklow

Why we decided to create a disability awareness programme

In recent years people with disabilities have been receiving a much more positive profile in the media. To a large extent this can be attributed to events such as Special Olympics, the trend towards mainstreaming children with ID in schools, and—not least—the strides made by the disability movement towards community integration. The media have also been highlighting the serious psychological effects of bullying on individuals. In view of all these factors, we assumed that the level of harassment and negative attitudes towards people with ID was on the decrease. However, when the grand-daughter of one of our staff members confided that some kids in her class enjoyed taunting and jeering people with ID, we decided it should be part of our role to try to do something to change this.

How we devised the Disability Awareness Pack

In keeping with the ethos of inclusive research and the People First motto of ‘Nothing about us without us’, we enlisted the help of our service users from the beginning of the project. We were guided by the issues that were important to them. One of the first areas we looked at was the extent to which jeering and taunting was still a problem. We set up focus groups and broached the topic of negative experiences in the community. We were surprised to find that many service users, particularly the more independent people and those who travelled on public transport, still experience a significant level of taunting and jeering. They also told us about some of their experiences of everyday life where they felt they were treated unfairly in pubs, shops and on public transport etc. Some of the older service users said that ‘It used to be a lot worse in the past. Sometimes the staff had to call the guards.’ But another independent traveller told us that she is afraid of ‘teenagers on the buses’, because she had been taunted and jeered by them. Her way of dealing with the problem was to change bus routes, even though this added an extra 30 minutes to her commuting time. An older service user told us about his experience of serious harassment in his locality, which has been going on for years in the small town where he lives.

Following these discussions, we asked the groups why they thought people jeered and taunted. The answers were very varied and insightful. Some service users dismissed the experience and said the people who jeered were ‘just ignorant and stupid’. They seemed to be able to take it in their stride. However, more worryingly, some people seemed to indicate that it was a normal part of their everyday lives. Unsurprisingly, most people in the groups said they found it very hurtful and upsetting when it happened.

We then consulted the service users about what other topics we should include in the training. The main topics the groups wanted to include were:
• Equality and human rights
• Treating everyone with respect and dignity
• Making allowances for people with specific disabilities in certain situations
• ‘Look at the ability and not the disability’
• We all have the same feelings and should be treated in the same way.

The format of the training. No fancy graphs or statistics….

With the information gathered from the focus groups, we set about designing some PowerPoint (PP) presentations. We did some cursory research into disability awareness training provided by organisations and consultancies, but they seemed to be overly medical and technical. It appeared that they were geared towards professionals or people working in the area. As our target audience was secondary students and the general public, we used plain English and did not make the presentations too technical.

The first presentation is a very general overview of various disabilities, with a little information from the World Health Organization (WHO) on how most of us, at some stage in our lives, will experience disability. It also includes slides on human rights, treating people fairly and respect and dignity. This presentation is usually delivered by a member of staff. After that we show a DVD featuring some of the service users at Sunbeam House Services, who talk about their everyday lives.
Finally, two service users present a PP about their lives. This includes slides on their education, employment, relationships, hobbies and interests and their goals for the future. This is by far the most effective section of the programme and it is most commented on feedback sheets.


For the past three years, in conjunction with Bray Partnership, we have been delivering the programme to secondary schools in the Bray and Greystones area. We have also delivered it to County Wicklow staff, Wicklow VEC staff and staff from our local leisure centre Shoreline. At the end of the programme, which takes approximately one hour, we ask the audience to write some brief feedback comments on what they thought of the programme, and what they thought was the best part of the presentation. The vast majority of the hundreds of comments we got back said that the best part of the programme was meeting the service users and listening to them talk about their lives.

‘I loved this talk. It was definitely the best seminar we had this year. I learned a lot about Gerry and Dan and how their lives are not that different from ours.’

‘I thought it was all very good. Having a learning disability myself I know what it is like to be mocked for being dyslexic.’
(Transition year students at St David’s Secondary School, Greystones, Oct 2012)

What we learned from delivering the programme

A couple of things became clear to us from delivering the seminar and looking at the feedback comments. It seems that many of those who attended the sessions had little or no personal interaction with people with ID. It was also apparent that despite the raised awareness of disabilities and more positive media attention, people with ID are still considered to be ‘other’ and intrinsically different from the majority of society.


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