South Africa: Lessons in Life and the Power of Inclusiveness

Sue Blaine
1 April 2009

Johannesburg — ASK not what you can do for disabled people, ask what disabled people can do for you, says education consultant Norman Kunc, who presents an annual lecture series at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“We need to realise that disabled people are a normal part of the community and ask what contribution they can make. And here’s the funny thing,” Kunc says, “in some instances the disabled employee benefits the employer.”

He tells the story of a deaf woman who got a job at a bank and ended up bringing with her the city’s deaf community because the bank now had someone who was fluent in sign language on its staff, able to give them advice on mortgages and other banking services.

Kunc has cerebral palsy, but what others see as a severe limitation, he sees as an opportunity to view the world differently, and live a life in which innovation, improvisation and creativity are of paramount importance.

“In practical terms, it means knowing which cup fits snugly into the sink drain and doesn’t tip over when I pour coffee. It means finding the same challenge and enjoyment in finding my balance on an icy sidewalk my friends find as they master tai chi,” he says.

“All of us have something wrong with our bodies. There is this presumption that the world should be made up of people who are not disabled, but we do have car accidents and young men who take risks and jump wrongly off diving boards. We have to recognise that disability is an inevitable part of human diversity. When we do, that radically impacts on how we view disabled people,” he says.

Kunc and his wife, Emma van der Klift , are co-directors of Broadreach Training and Resources , providing in-service and training in the areas of inclusive education, employment equity, conflict resolution, and other disability rights issues. They’ve done this for 25 years.

When Kunc was 13 and had finished his primary schooling at a segregated (special) school in Toronto, Canada, he was told he would go into a “special” class in a “normal” school, but he foresaw a problem: the school was 11km from his home.

“I could already see that an important part of school is the social network that you create. If I went to that school, my friends would be from far away,” he says.

On the advice of his primary school principal, Kunc went to see the principal of his local high school to ask him whether he was prepared to accommodate him.

“Every obstacle he came up with I had an answer for. Eventually he said: ‘Okay, but for God’s sake, don’t fall down’.”

Looking back, Kunc is relieved he had the gumption to demand a place at a “regular” high school, because he feels the academic standard was higher than that of the special school.

It was because of having to match up to this standard that he was able to study humanities at Toronto’s York University and complete a master’s degree in family therapy at the nearby University of Guelph.

While Kunc was completing his master’s degree he wrote a book on how he had coped with the demands of school, such as participating in physical education classes, and this led to him being invited to speak at a conference, and then another, and another until it “kinda snowballed” and he was faced with a big decision — a regular salary as a family therapist, or a leap into the uncertain to hit the public speaking trail.

He took the leap. It paid off.

But, in SA, where many teachers often have scant grasp of the subject they must teach, let alone how to deal with a pupil who has special needs, have to contend with classes of up to 60, and do so in a poorly resourced environment, is the ideal of inclusive education realistic?

“What’s implied in that question?” asks Kunc. “Are we saying that disabled children are a different type of child? A teacher will say, ‘I have 35 kids in my class, I have no time and energy for a special needs kid’ — but if a teacher runs out of time and energy, why get rid of me? It implies that disabled kids are an add-on; that education is not as important for disabled children. But what if we said that there were not enough teachers to teach all the boys – so how can teachers teach the girls?” he says.

Just as a disabled employee can actually benefit a workplace, including a disabled child in a “normal” class can be beneficial, says Kunc.

“What they have found is that when you have a highly competitive environment and you put in someone who needs more support (than the majority), the others tend to be more supportive towards that person, and when that happens it sort of gives the pupils ‘permission’ to be more supportive of each other,” he says.

To illustrate, Kunc tells of a 13-year-old cerebral palsied girl who wanted to join her school’s cheerleading team. The coach told her to ask the other girls. The girls said, “Cool,” and worked out a routine that incorporated the cerebral palsied girl and her wheelchair.

“The fascinating thing was that the coach told me that in 17 years of being coach, the biggest challenge had always been the (cheerleading team) girls back-stabbing each other, but for the first time that had not happened — and she believed it was because of Marike,” he says.

“You can explain it this way. In a competitive environment to be nice to someone can be to compromise your position, but in a network of people that are being supportive of one person, to turn around and be negative towards another one of the group becomes more obvious,” he says.

One of inclusive education’s most powerful tools has nothing to do with disability, says Kunc. It is differentiated instruction, which involves providing pupils with different ways of learning the content they need to learn. “It’s got nothing to do with disabled kids. It’s based on the fact that in any grade 4 not all of the kids will be at the same level. How do you design an activity with the slight modifications that will include them all?

“It really is about innovation and creativity. That’s why collaboration (between principal, teachers, pupil, class and parents) is so important. There has to be a desire to make it work,” he says.

“It really is attitude that is the clincher,” says Kunc, and it is for this reason that the popularity of Cambridge theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who has motor neuron disease but is also widely regarded as having one of the greatest minds of the age .

Hawking has also achieved success with works of popular science in which he discusses his own theories and cosmology in general, including the runaway bestseller, A Brief History of Time , which stayed on the British Sunday Times bestseller list for a record-breaking 237 weeks.

Hawking’s popularity helped to emphasise the divergence between mind and body, which has “shaken up” the mental models that lie beneath the common tendency to equate a disabled body with a disabled mind, Kunc says.

“Whether we talk about inclusive education, or employment equity, what is vitally important is how we see the disability itself. Look at me. Do you think I am not the way I should have been? That I am abnormal? It’s important to recognise that disability is a normal part of human diversity,” he says.

It makes you think, doesn’t it?

What others see as a severe limitation, he sees as an opportunity to view the world differently.

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