We must embrace diversity in the post-Covid-19 world

Teresa Carroll, the ETF’s National Head of Inclusion, writes about diversity, inclusion and the Tomorrow’s leaders: a world beyond disability publication.

Early June saw the publication of Tomorrow’s leaders: a world beyond disability. Over 30 brilliant young people who are leading in the fields of the arts, entrepreneurship, politics, sports, in fact every part of society are featured in the publication. They are all achieving personally, shaping their communities and generally creating a fairer society. These young people all have something in common: they have a special educational need or disability. 

The publication’s inspiration came from two sources. Firstly, young people telling us that too often society gets hung up on what they perceive to be their ‘need’ or ‘disability’ rather than focusing on their aspirations and strengths. And secondly, the Power 100 list, which showcases the 100 most influential disabled people in the UK. The journalist, presenter and comedian, Alex Brooker, (presenter from The Last Leg) was voted number 1 in 2019.  

In Further Education, we are all about harnessing individuals’ potential so that we can all achieve no matter who we are. However, as Dame Christine Lenehan states in the publication’s foreword, ‘we still have a long way to go in creating a world that is accessible and inclusive’. Many of the young people in Tomorrow’s Leaders talk about how they faced barriers along the way, as Jabe says (page 10), ‘I have developed resilience and am able to overcome challenges by accepting my disability and everything that comes along with it.’ Sadly, ‘the everything that comes with it’ is often the expectations and judgements made by others and wider society that can create the challenges in the first place.

So how do we get to a world where we begin to see others in their totality rather than particular characteristics? Well, it’s not going to be easy. Our reflexive brain (amygdala) is programmed to make swift judgements (based on the evolutionary fight or flight principle). It is involuntary, outside our awareness, irrational, and reactionary. It is typically recruited because it is fast and effortless. The reflexive brain involuntarily makes judgments about people on how they present.

So to reduce negative attitudes toward others, we have to reprogramme our reflexive mind. It is programmed by habits we choose to propagate, experiences we embed ourselves in, and information we surround ourselves with. Becoming aware that this is how we’re behaving is the first step in making a change. Strategies such as unconscious bias training may also move us to address this.

Another way forward is for us to listen and learn from people’s lived experience. Together we can then remove barriers and challenge structures and processes that whilst well intended, tend to maintain and often reinforce inequalities within our society. Jess, a law graduate and motivational speaker who is training for the Bar, talks about being referred to as a ‘triple minority’ as a Black woman with a disability. She says (page 24), ‘My glass ceiling has triple glazing but still, I intend to break through it, taking as many people with me as possible!’ Jess and the other young leaders in this publication show what can be achieved if those of us who work within the systems in place, listen to what we’re being told and work together to ensure those processes and structures work for those they are supposed to serve.

Covid-19 has brought into sharp relief the structural social and economic inequalities present within our society and further education providers have worked hard to mitigate them where they can. With lockdown, colleges have largely very effectively and efficiently moved their learning offer online to try to ensure that learners can continue their studies uninterrupted. The Education and Training Foundation’s three Centres for Excellence in SEND, which aim to support all FE providers to become inclusive organisations, highlight the reality of home life for many learners. The Centres reported the absence of technological devices and/or the lack of digital skills of parents and carers who are desperately trying to home school. 

By listening to learners, parents and carers, further education and social care professionals worked together to find solutions. Colleges worked with social workers to access grants to purchase laptops and where not available, colleges supplied learners with laptops for home use. College technicians and teachers supported parents, carers and to develop their skills so they might access and use the various digital platforms resulting in learners, parents and carers accessing learning in ways that met their needs. The experience has created an increased understanding of the lived experience of learners and their families resulting in stronger relationships and an understanding of how to make processes work.

Let’s bring what we’ve learned to the current and post-Covid-19 world and use it to create a society that is more caring and inclusive to what has gone before. Covid-19 has allowed us to pause, recognise the different experiences within society and how we might create a world that serves and brings out the best in us all. The Black Lives Matter protests highlight the serious consequences of not paying attention to people’s experience and the subsequent wasted potential. Recognising diversity is a good thing – as humans, we achieve so much more by harnessing everyone’s experience and can achieve wonderful things. 

I’ll leave the last word to Siena (page 32), author and founder of celebrating neurodiversity week, which gives us all something to keep in mind, "Never be ashamed of being different: it is this difference that makes you extraordinary and unique."

This article was published on FE Week on 23 June 2020.