Deirdre Fitzpatrick - I CAN

Thinking differently to build a truly inclusive society

I CAN’s Director of Education, Deirdre Fitzpatrick draws from her experience on how we can change our thinking and our approach to create a truly inclusive society for children with special educational needs (SEN).

I have learnt to think differently. I have learnt not to accept the world as it is, not to accept the status quo. I have learnt to focus not on limitations but on possibilities: aspirations.

A few years ago I read Steve Silberman’s book, Neurotribes. At the time I was head of a school which had a large cohort of autistic young people. The book clarified my thinking on autism and perceived disability: autistic young people think differently and as a consequence enrich our society. 

I began to realise that as well as supporting those who think differently, we should be celebrating the diversity of thought, encourage young people who think differently to flourish and utilise the skills they have to offer. We shouldn’t simply be educating them to fit into our world but educating society to understand and appreciate the unique strengths of those who think differently. As a consequence society needs to develop, adapt and grow, utilising diversity of thought and idea.

In our school, I was satisfied that we were doing all we could to help keep our young people safe and reduce their anxieties so that they could thrive and flourish within the world they lived. Approximately 90% of our students had communication difficulties which often led to frustration and caused much of their anxiety. However, I realised we should be doing more. We had a new focus, a new goal. We wanted to raise aspiration but, unlike mainstream schools, the focus wasn’t about raising aspirations in students, but raising the aspirations of employers. We wanted employers, the work force, to see the potential of those who think differently. And we decided to start with the local community. 

We knew that many of our young people would remain in the local community. They would continue to be looked after by their families and so educating the local community seemed sensible. We embarked on a series of awareness training, coming at the employers from a range of different angles, so that they couldn’t escape! We ran open mornings, showing off the brilliance of our students and enticing them in with free tea and coffee. We encouraged them to take our students on long term work experience, offering them free adult support who acted as job coaches, educating the employer’s staff. We took our students to the local businesses, selling the products they had made to local workers and joining them for lunch. We got ourselves on the local enterprise board and eulogised about the skills of our young people. We even opened up our own shop, farm and horticulture centre to develop the work related learning skills needed. 

And the result? More and more employers accepted and were keen to take our students on work experience. And best of all the employers sought to engage the students permanently and gave them jobs when they left school. 

Of course ambition and aspiration didn’t end there. Before I left we began to work with a number of well known national firms to support them in understanding the potential of our young people in developing their workforce. 

It would appear employers are beginning to open their eyes to the possibilities. The aspirations we have for our young people, to live in a society which supports, celebrates and utilises difference, could fast become a reality.