CfESEND blog: lived experiences informing our work in SEND - Derby College

Blog by Sarah Le-Good, Inclusion Director and CfESEND Curriculum Project Lead at Derby College Group, for the Centres for Excellence in SEND programme.

A person centred approach is at the core of what we do at Derby College both as everyday inclusive practice and in our work as a Centre for Excellence in SEND theme of Curriculum. A vital source of information when considering how to create an environment that best supports a learner with specific inclusion needs, is the learner themselves. People with lived experience are in the best position to articulate their own needs and it is important to know that it’s okay for us to ask. Have a read about how one member of our team has used his lived experience to positively impact on our work as an inclusion team.

When we’re creating inclusive teaching plans, the learner has to be the focal point. We make sure that they know collaboration is crucial, explaining that it’s their document, to be shared with their teachers, to describe what strategies will be put in place to meet their particular inclusion needs. We often have conversations where we reinforce the strength of collaboration, asking ‘are you okay with using this word or that description? Would you prefer to use something else?’ We are led by the individual.

Neil, an Inclusion Trainer at Derby College has not only completed his Masters in Education, focusing on the language of inclusion, but he has his own lived experience, having recently been diagnosed with autism.

He says “My whole life I didn’t feel I was in step with the world. I didn’t do well at school at all. I bunked off a lot and the deputy head got me in and said ‘as long as you’re not here, disturbing people who’ve got a chance in life I don’t care.’ As a 15-year-old I thought it was brilliant, but I left school with nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

After leaving school he experienced many difficulties becoming homeless for 3 years. His life turned around when he began college at the age of 25, then went onto university. Though it was long before his diagnosis, he found university to be a highly supportive place where he could thrive, completing his music degree and moving into initial teacher education. But he found the career he loves purely by accident. Sixteen years ago, I started working in SEND, and have been passionate about inclusion ever since. “I absolutely love what I do” he adds “to able to support people and help them is so rewarding for me.”

Though he has extensive experience and expertise in the field, it wasn’t until recent years that he considered his own inclusion needs. He says, “It was always nagging away in my head. And the more research I did for my master’s I really began understanding the process of the way that I work. Getting a diagnosis allowed me the opportunity to explore support interventions such as counselling, medication, and peer support networks. I discovered through conversation with health professionals that over 98% of autistic people experience high levels of generalised anxiety. On reflection, I realised that I had been functioning with a high level of anxiety for most of my life.”

Overall, Neil describes his diagnosis as a positive experience. More than anything else it was a relief. He says, “It was an explanation of why I am the way I am, seeing my need for hyper organisation as a positive attribute rather than a challenge to manage.”

As soon as he got the diagnosis, the college’s human resources team got in touch to ask if there was anything he needed. He was offered an inclusive workplace plan to design how he works best. A priority for Neil was to have contact with a trusted person who wouldn’t judge him or tell him what to do straight away, but who he could safely run things past in order to gain clarity. He says his ‘out of the park brilliant’ line manager was so supportive of him already, that she didn’t have to change much at all, good coaching and enabling through the consistent question “Well what do you think Neil?”.

For Neil’s final MEd research project, he investigated the language staff used to describe people with inclusion needs. He continues, “For example ‘John is a blind learner’. In that statement you have immediately put John’s medical condition before John as a person. Whereas we use person first language. So, we’d say, ‘John, who is blind’. We’d put John first. Little things like that are actually so important.”

From his research, his studying and his lived experience Neil is adamant about the power of language and explains that the key is to be conscious of what we say.

He concludes, “Language can make people feel like they are ‘other’ and exclude them from the perceived norm. We need to pay attention to the language we use, learners deserve that, because our words have so much power. It’s not just semantics. It’s not just words. It matters.”

Its no wonder really with that wealth of professional experience, lived experience and focus on Inclusion that Neil, the team at his campus and the wider staff team at DCG work hard to ensure this learning informs all we offer within the college and to the sector via our Centre for Excellence in SEND. We are proud of all we do as I’m sure you are too, so why not join us for a community of practice so we can share ideas?

Further information on the Centres for Excellence in SEND programme can be found on the ETF’s SEND Excellence Gateway.

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