Friday, 10 April 2009

College life

Client's self portrait, April 7th 2009

Is it politically correct for a disabled young man to describe his college colleagues, also disabled, as “total behindert”, really disabled/handicapped?

It isn’t funny, but it did make me smile as I wondered whether it would be considered “proper” for one CP teenager to call another CP teenager behindert!

Bullied

The story that I was being told was very serious, about being bullied, as this young man described how the way in which his peers spoke to him is “totally behindert”. I asked him whether he thinks it OK to use this term to describe his peers’ behaviour. He replied that it is accepted amongst them, and they are all behindert anyway.

I had been talking to this young man about his problems fitting into college life. He feels that he is being bullied, he even used the English term "mobbed" in his descriptions of what has been happening to him. It is difficult for fellow students to understand his speech, and they tease him. He has problems holding his head up and also with swallowing, so sometimes he dribbles. They tease him about this too. The list goes on. Even a best friend from kindergarten joins the crowd and teases him along with the others.

Out in the real world

Since last year, when he left the safe environment of the special school that he had attended since kindergarten days, he has been going to a further education college. He left the haven of people who had known him and his ways for fourteen years. These were people who understood his unclear speech, who could read his gestures and who protected him from the real world of conflicts.

Now he is out in that real, sometimes cruel, world and although it came as a bit of a shock at first he is in fact doing rather well and enjoying it, though sometimes it doesn’t feel like that to him. There are occasions like now, when the behindert bullying behaviour of his classmates upsets him so much that he doesn’t feel like returning after the school holiday.

Generally he loves the courses that he his taking. He has learnt more in the past six months than in six years at his old school. He is maturing steadily, and sometimes even in leaps and bounds.

Now he finds himself in a situation where disabled teenagers are making fun of him and making his life at college miserable. At first I reacted with the thoughts:

“How can they be so cruel, so thoughtless. What can we do about it?”

But at the same time I thought:

“At last a normal environment. Leave them alone to sort it out for themselves as young children also tend to do... but these are not young children it isn’t quite the same."

This young lad's home life is just about as normal as it can be. He helps out with the chores when and where he is able, he is expected to do his bit just like his siblings are. He doesn’t carry up the logs for the fires or the crate of water as his brother does, but he does help to cook and lay and clear the table.

He is treated exactly as his brother and sisters are treated: no special rules for him.

School was always a “wrapped in cotton wool” existence, where he was understood, his needs anticipated and often even his sentences finished for him. Now since joining college life in August last year he is getting a taste of reality. Although he is still in an environment with young adults with disabilities many of the daily activities that he was spared at school are now unavoidable. He must buy tickets for himself at the beginning of the week for his lunches, he must collect his own lunch and eat it in the time allotted. He must make sure that he gets to all his classes on time and is ready in the afternoon to catch his bus home.

Conductive psychotherapy

He is learning how to deal with it all, but this also unfortunately means learning how to overcome his sensitivity to the bullying. He has just told me that they even spray deodorant in his face because of his breath smelling.

It is not surprising that he sometimes struggles (don’t we all - see on my posting on the MS group, posted on 5th April) but he also survives. He is determined to do more than just survive, however, he wants to succeed. He wants to make changes, he wants to learn to hold his head up high again, just as he did on the very first day he entered the building, by choice, all alone, on his first day at college.

He wants to carry on learning mathematics, politics, German and cooking, he wants to continue learning to live his life outside his home as independently as he can. This is why he is asking for me to assist with the bullying problem.

He rushed over to meet me at the station when I first arrived. He nearly bowled me over he was so pleased to see me again. It is as if he has been storing up everything that he wants to ask me, he is thrilled to have my attention, my patience and the time to talk and be understood.

So far (it is just four days since we first met again) we have concluded that we can’t change the bullies directly, but we have discussed the possibilities that we have to change them indirectly. We think that if this young lad changes his behaviour, if he tries to alter how he reacts to their "totally behindert" words and actions, then slowly he will have an influence on their behaviour too.

He really is doing well. He complains no more about the bullies, makes no more aggressive thumps on the table. He now talks about himself and what he wants to achieve,and he is already implementing some of our ideas. He always tries to walk tall not only when practising. I hear him telling himself that he is big and strong and important. He holds his chest out, his head is held high. He is trying to talk clearly, remembering that strangers don’t always understand him. He is discovering that it is not only he who reads body language and facial expression (which he is very sensitive to). He is discovering that the language of his own body and of his movements both have an influence on others. We have been discussing how the first sight that we get of someone walking towards us creates a very important initial impression of that person, which usually remains. We have talked about how we can influence what people think of us in these first seconds of an encounter.

Our '1,2,3,4,5' programmes are used to experiment with posture and walking patterns, which create different characteristics in someone, we have choice in what we would like people to think about us, and we try to act it out in our movements and posture during our programme.

Out in society

We practise out on the village streets too. It is school holiday and Easter, therefore many people are out and about.

A typical behaviour from this young lad while out walking is suddenly to stand still and watch the activities of others. Many people would describe this as staring and find it quite disturbing. We are trying to alter this. If he stops and “stares” for more than ten seconds he follows on with a hello or a good morning. It is working: he now gets caught up in some interesting chats with new acquaintances, whereas before he was afraid to speak in case he wasn’t understood.

It was while out walking together that I discovered the other side of the coin. Life at college is not all bullying and being mobbed.

We chat a lot while walking, trying to develop skills at concentrating on more than one thing, walking, the traffic and meeting other people for example.

My young client began to talk about a project that his class is involved in. It relates to the content of a posting that I wrote recently, about the changes being made in Nürnberg to make it a more accessible town for people with disabilities.

This class of disabled youngsters is doing a survey of the small town that their college is in, to assess how accessible it is for wheelchair-users.

My client and his class take a camera and one wheelchair-user into town with them They hunt down areas which are in need of attention to make them suitable for wheelchair users. Then they take photographic evidence back with them to use in the report that they will eventually present to the town council.

They have already documented pavements that have not been lowered at appropriate places, and banks, offices and shops that do not have adequate access.

My young client took me into the bank yesterday to show me how automatic cash machines are totally inaccessible to wheelchair-users. He is right. I hadn’t really thought about them before. The wheelchair cannot be got close enough for the user to read the keyboard and screen, as it cannot be driven underneath. I was shown in great detail all areas in the small room that houses the cash machine, in which improvements need to be made.

Later I was also shown how the local baker should design his shop to incorporate a ramp running the length of the shop beneath the window to allow for wheelchair access.

In the space of a three kilometre walk I had listened to how CP teenagers bully other CP teenagers, calling each other behindert and upsetting each other to the extent that they don’t what to go back to school after the holiday, and on the other hand heard how they work together on a project that they hope will allow their wheelchair-using peers better access in the real, cruel world!

And now for a little break...

As it is now Good Friday it seems appropriate that we leave these problems behind for a few days and get started on the Easter preparations. We have taken on the task of helping the Easter bunny with his decorating of the eggs. On Saturday we will also bake Easter biscuits and lunch for the family. Sunday will be a much-needed day of rest and celebration.

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