The best feeling in the world is to feel wanted, part of something and valued- being included and able to comfortably participate can really do wonders for our mental health and is something that I have really appreciated in friendships and other parts of my life. Sometimes, the little things can make all the difference to those of us who find the world just that bit more challenging to wade through.
In my personal life and work as a youth worker, I’ve seen and experienced people getting inclusion right and very wrong. Some people have that innate sense of understanding, some people have to be trained to understand and others quite frankly are at a loss when faced with the need to include someone with an invisible disability or mental health condition. I’ve also seen people almost literally try to run a mile when I mention the word anxiety. I sometimes wonder why? but then I realise that people are scared of anything different to their reality- just as when something new or unexpected happens whilst travelling (trams braking down in Manchester for example) and I begin to panic. I understand that people often fear difference, but this doesn’t stop me asking why.
Growing up I’ve experienced discrimination, have been misunderstood and people would often treat me thoughtlessly, but I have also felt included and seen people go out of their way to be inclusive. I’m very much aware that my friends value me and I’m sure they realise that I value them in more ways than I can put into words. The best kind of inclusion for me is for people to ask me questions, to learn and develop strategies to support participation, to start to understand what being dyspraxic means to me, rather than making assumptions about things I can and can’t do. I’ve heard plenty of times ‘Oh Alice won’t want to come’ or ‘I don’t think you’ll like that’ and even ‘We are totally unprepared to support Alice’ Assuming that with my labels I have limitations. I have missed friends parties due to anxiety, but on other occasions I’ve made an extra effort to be there, because I value friendships more than anything. I’ve also experienced a ‘hero worshipping’ scenario, when for a long time I was convinced that I was being included but in reality the person I was looking up to didn’t care about me and the sense of belonging that I thought I had gained meant nothing to her, constantly being told that I need to develop ‘thick skin’ and neglecting my friends who have always been there in the process. I have since learned that so many disabled girls go though this at a similar age to me at the time.
Inclusion is constantly bandied around amongst professionals, and acknowledging difference, equality and diversity forms a core part of youth work values. As I move further on into my career I realise that there will always be a need for training around inclusion, diversity and difference. I’ve heard young people with hidden disabilities being described as ‘difficult’ or ‘hard work’ and I’ve seen the assumption that ‘all young people just want to kick a football around’ or similar. I know that one of my worst nightmares as a teenager would be anything involving a bat or ball, or exercise that made me stand out to be uncoordinated and shambolic. I’ve also experienced people doing it right, as a young person I was given the time and space to have a go- ways to include me often involved just listening to me. Something so simple yet incredibly powerful, and along with so many others I’m sure, that I often lacked at secondary school.
Society generally encourages us to disclose our disability or mental health need, and so far in the last few years since I’ve become more accepting of myself, I have been more honest than ever before. I’ve disclosed when applying to university, for a provisional driving licence, for volunteering positions and in job applications. As much as i understand the importance of being open and not to be ashamed of who you are- there are flaws in this need for disclosure. I’m not embarrassed about being Dyspraxic but I am embarrassed about people’s preconceptions. I also don’t want to constantly discuss it in every situation I come across, where does the need to disclose end? Do you tell the taxi driver, shop keeper or bus driver? Do you need to disclose to everyone you meet so that they can understand why you have trouble standing up on busses or that you’d like them to hand your change to you in a way that you won’t drop things? My argument against disclosure is that as soon as you write down or verbalise those few words ‘Dyspraxia’ or ‘anxiety’ or ‘depression’ people whether they want to or not, immediately form an image in their head describing what you could be like and start to form assumptions. I read an article about the actor from the Harry Potter films, Daniel Radcliffe, saying that he ‘admits to being Dyspraxic’- as if it is some kind of crime or something to be ashamed of. This sort of media doesn’t help. It’s so much more beneficial to meet someone in person before developing opinions on a condition that can vary so much from person to person. I’m Dyspraxic but there is so much I can do, that looking at a list of symptoms or traits may suggest that I wouldn’t be able to. Anyone can look up Dyspraxia, but that doesn’t mean that they know me- and that is what I want to get across today. I also see the value in being open and honest from the start- so that you can get the support (if any) and inclusion you need. It is protocol as youth workers to ask young people to fill in a health form when we start working with them- I always appreciate parents being honest about a disability, but I always look much further than one word on the page- this word does not and should not define them, it is only a starting point to build a positive relationship and to provide an inclusive environment where they can feel valued. I’ve known some people to look no further than this one word. You have to get to know the individual to be inclusive, something that few attempt to do or indeed to have that little more understanding. When inclusion is understood and acted on- it can feel wonderful, you can develop a sense of belonging and really feel that people are listening to and understanding you. I started writing this blog because of the lack of understanding I felt throughout my life and my determination to help others understand. With this understanding, inclusion can really take place.
I’d like to open up a debate about the concept of inclusion. What does inclusion mean to you? And does disclosure allow for inclusion or does it do the opposite? I’d also love to hear from anyone who’s had either positive or negative experiences of inclusion (whether you have a disability/mental health condition or not.)
I’ve recently been nominated as positive role for disability in the National Diversity Awards, I really believe that equality and diversity is at the heart of everything I do and is something that has always been important to me. If anything I have written has resonated with you, your vote will mean the world to me. Voting ends on the 20th June. You can vote by following the link here: https://nominate.nationaldiversityawards.co.uk/nominate/endorse/29906