Actors with intellectual disabilities take leading role in teaching teachers of tomorrow about students with special needs

28 August 2012

In a University, experts come in many forms and aspiring teachers from Deakin University have been putting substance behind the phrase 'see the person, not the disability' thanks to help from a group of actors with intellectual disabilities, from Fusion Theatre in Dandenong.

The actors have been coming into Deakin University's Burwood Campus as part of a Teaching for Diversity unit which aims to improve the students' skills in teaching students with special educational needs.

But unusually it is the adult actors who are taking the role of teacher or expert to teach the students about the subject they know a lot about – education and disability.

"One of the commitments at Deakin and indeed the Government is 'equity and access for individuals and groups who might not otherwise enjoy the benefits that flow from participation in higher education'," said researcher and workshop co organiser Jo Raphael.

"I think there is an important kind of social justice in this project that has people with intellectual disabilities coming into the university as 'expert' presenters - an institution that they would be unlikely to ever be admitted to as students."

Ms Raphael said throughout Australia, there had been a movement towards including students with mild to severe disabilities in regular classrooms.

"However teachers and beginning teachers in particular don't always feel confident in working with students with special educational needs," she said.

"Research into what works to improve the skills of teaching students in dealing with students with special education needs has produced mixed results.

"Information based courses for instance help student teachers develop an intellectual understanding of disability issues and inclusion, but they do not necessarily challenge their ideas and attitudes towards people with disabilities.

"Prior contact with people with disabilities is a critical factor in building confidence and fostering a positive attitude that is so important to effectively teach them, although many pre-service teachers said they have had few opportunities to engage with people with disabilities.

"There is also a fair amount of discussion during this process as to how the student with the special educational needs can be viewed.

"A focus on disability can lead to a limited and sometimes deficit view of a student rather than a more positive focus on what a student can do.

"Teachers need to be able to see the possibilities for learning and understand that a person with a disability can make important contributions and lead a fulfilled life."

Ms Raphael, through her work with the Fusion Theatre, thought that applied theatre techniques and learning through drama would be a better approach.

"When we were reviewing the Teaching for Diversity unit, we thought it would be interesting for five members of the theatre company to tell the pre-service teachers about their experiences in schools as learners with special educational needs," she said.

"But not only talk with them but to work alongside them in the drama workshop that involves physical activities and group problem solving.

"This provides an opportunity to see the Fusion actors as competent adults able to make a contribution to society, with relevant stories to tell about their experiences of education and the ability to take leadership in a drama workshop.

"Fusion Theatre was first invited to present a practical drama workshop five years ago and now it has become a central part of the Teaching for Diversity unit."

The workshop has also become a key element of Ms Raphael's PhD which is looking at what happens when university student teachers work alongside adults with intellectual disabilities in a drama workshop program that is centred on understanding teaching for diversity.

Ms Raphael said the Fusion Theatre members took the pre-service teachers through a series of warm-up activities and introduced activities which encouraged the teaching students to think about notions of inclusion and exclusion.

"As a group they improvise scenes identifying obstacles to inclusion and the Fusion members speak about their own educational experiences," she said.

Ms Raphael said the personal stories of the Fusion members were particularly powerful with students commenting that it had allowed them to relate as human beings rather than labels.

One student commented "perhaps the most important thing I gained from the workshop was the reminder to see the students as individuals and not to make assumptions."

"Other students commented that it had allowed them to alleviate some fears they had about catering for students with special educational needs in the classroom," Ms Raphael said.

"Another commented 'not only was I learning about the individuals behind the disabilities but they also taught me how someone with a disability might like to learn'."

Ms Raphael said that if teachers have a positive attitude to students with disabilities and a desire to teach them then they are more likely to seek out the required knowledge and skills.

The benefits of the workshop though don't just flow one way.

"For me it is short and sweet, this is who we are not what we are," said Alex one of the Fusion members.

"We are not 'what', we are not objects, not freaks, not animals.

"We are just human beings as anyone else.

"In the workshop we open their minds and hearts to see if they could share the experience together with us.

"It is about disabled and non-disabled people sharing the passion for drama and learning."

Fellow Fusion member Andrew said the workshop was important to give the student teachers a bit of a heads up about people with disabilities and what people with disabilities can achieve.

"Sort of the down and up sides of disability," he said.

"I think there is a certain amount of ignorance in relation to disability and I think it opens your eyes to what disabled people are capable of.

"They are getting an insight into what people with disabilities can do and the problems faced by people with disability and the problems faced by so called 'normal' people being confronted by disability.

"I think we give a new meaning to 'You can't judge a book by its cover'. I think we show our limitations and then we go beyond them.

Fusion member Jean-Marie said they helped the student teachers grow.

"We do the workshop to help them with their career," she said.

"When they come across other people with differences they see them as not just disabled but in a positive way.

"When they teach they can forget and they get busy and just think 'I've got to do this report. I've got to do this and that.'

"We need to make them think, 'Hang on I've got a student with a disability, I need to slow down and get good advice and good resources'.

"We don't want to see a person with a disability lagging behind.

"We want to show them that we are just as smart as everyone else in the school and we have rights like everyone else.

"And we need to be heard."


Media contact

Rebecca Tucker
Media and Corporate Communications
03 5227 8568, 0418 979 134
Email Rebecca

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