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STEM Ambassador Engagement Officer Laura Slevin shares some thoughts on neuro and physical diversity and the progress our STEM Ambassador Hub has made towards becoming more inclusive.

“There is no greater disability in society than the inability to see a person as more.”

“No disability or dictionary out there is capable of clearly defining who we are as a person.”

—Robert M. Hensel

SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disability), or neuro and physical diversity, are words we may feel familiar with and think we understand. We all have our own understanding, misconceptions, and instinctive first thoughts around what this means to us. Some may think of experiences with loved ones, diagnosed or not. Some may think of what they have seen in films and on TV. Some may think negatively; some positively.

As a trainee and newly qualified teacher, I too heard these phrases, nodded my head, and went away to spend hours tailoring lesson plans in response to reams of academic research and thought I knew what I was doing. My perspective of this changed over the years that followed.

Although I would never say that time spent researching and learning was poorly spent, I only really started to understand the needs of my students through connecting with them on an individual level, and my time was most certainly best spent with them, observing, trying new things, asking them for their thoughts and making sure they knew I cared for them as their teacher.

Throughout my time teaching, I had the opportunity to work with so many fantastic young people who had their own unique strengths and talents. Each year I would excitedly receive my registers and review my class data. Each year I would have students appear with a little flag next to their name, which indicated that they had ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, emotional and social difficulties, epilepsy, cerebral palsy… The list felt endless.

And each year, my experience working with those students was very different, because after all, they were entirely different people. These classes, these lists, are a representation of our society. They are all young people who will grow to be our future. The little flag against their name did not define them or prescribe what must be the right thing to support them to be their best selves. Despite having the same ‘flag’, what worked for one was not the same as what worked for another.

That being said, I think I could happily spend a lifetime in pursuit of perfecting my understanding of just one of the ‘things’ represented by the little flags. I write this knowing I absolutely do not have all the answers, but I really do believe that there is benefit in the pursuit of understanding in making this world a fairer place.

Whether you have peripheral awareness or a more in-depth understanding of somebody’s lived experience, you can always learn more. We owe each other the time to understand one another truly. By taking the time to know individuals and actively making changes to the way we work based on the conversations we have with real people, we will then be effectively making progress towards a genuinely inclusive society.

Many job specifications state things like ‘communicates effectively’; ‘committed to diversity and inclusion’; ‘conducts responsibilities respectfully’. But how often do you honestly prioritise them and ingrain them into your everyday work practices? And how much do we really understand what these things mean to different people? As you reflect on that, I am sure you will find some answers to what you can do to improve the things you control.

International days of celebration and case studies are great, but I think it is the little things that we all do day to day, our mindset—no matter what our roles—that makes the real difference. You don’t have to be a teacher, a HR specialist, or a diversity and inclusion champion to take responsibility for your own understanding of the people you share the world with. But with so much information out there, it can often feel daunting and leave you feeling uncertain of a place to start.

From my experience, I think curiosity is key; letting people know you do not know and allowing them to help you help them. When I think about my work now, I try to use a bit of a six-hat theory approach and envisage my experience as though I have a different way of thinking or physically engaging with whatever service or activity I have created.

Getting as many perspectives as possible on whatever you do is important to make it the best and most accessible it can be. No one person will ever be an expert on all things which fall under this little acronym or the phrases we use; there is a lot to consider. But a good place to start is to get a handle on the terminology and common ‘themes’ of different neuro and physical characteristics.

Child playing with a sensory exhibit in Wonderlab

Helpful information and resources

Mencap

Mencap aims to improve the lives of people with a learning disability and their families now and fight alongside them for a better future. They team up with our network of over 300 local groups to reach people across England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Their learning difficulties page is a helpful starting point for those seeking a better understanding of different learning disabilities.

L&D at School

L&D at School is a Canadian website that is full of useful information about different learning needs—including a glossary of terms—as well as support suggestions and resources.

SEND Gateway

The SEND gateway website is a great resource and offers free webinars and training. It’s also the home of the Whole School SEND Consortium, which brings together schools, organisations and individuals who are committed to ensuring that every child and young person with SEND can achieve their potential at school.

The Careers & Enterprise Company

The Careers & Enterprise Company offer a wide range of supportive resources and guidance to provide better careers advice and information for young people. These resources are useful for parents, teachers, and employers.

Neurodiversity Network

The Neurodiversity Network website includes various podcasts and newsletters and advice for employers and neurodiverse job seekers.

Understanding Autism course at Bradford College

Bradford College has waived fees for the CACHE Level 2 Certificate in Understanding Autism. I was lucky to study this insightful course myself through Kirklees College.

What we’re doing

Since leaving the classroom, I have learned more about what those young people from my classes will grow to experience as adults, and have been lucky to meet so many fantastic role models and advocates for equality.

According to the World Health Organisation, 20% of the global population identify as having a disability. Yet sadly, in the UK, despite 73% of people with SEND wanting to work, only 6% are in full time paid employment.

However, I believe things are changing for the better, and as a STEM Ambassador Hub, we have taken our first three small steps.

1. We have learned more and spread the word about some fantastic work from local organisations and services through our inclusion forums, spanning everything from work experience opportunities and internships to better careers advice.

2. We put out a call to action to our STEM Ambassadors (professionals working in science, technology, engineering, and maths) to speak openly about their experiences. STEM Ambassadors from different SEND backgrounds have made video resources explaining their STEM journey and challenges that they have faced in work and school.

These resources give an insight into Ambassadors’ experiences with different SEND, such as those on the autism spectrum, hard of hearing, cerebral palsy and those who have developed SEND later in life. If you have a STEM Learning account, you can request the videos on the STEM Learning Digital Platform. If you do not have an account but would like to watch the videos, please email [email protected].

3. We are reviewing our systems and approaches to improve our delivery. We have procured three specialist organisations/individuals to deliver accessible virtual workshops as part of our British Science Week programme.

Events

Sensory Seaside

10.00, Thursday 11 March 2021

Enjoy a trip to the seaside from the comfort of your own home. This online sensory workshop allows learners to explore the sounds, sights and taste of the sea at their own pace and learn about the impact of pollution.

Event information and tickets for Sensory Seaside

Supported Internships with Lighthouse Futures Trust

11.00, Thursday 11 March 2021

Lighthouse Futures Trust is associated with Lighthouse School, which provides a bespoke curriculum to support young people on the autistic spectrum to reach their full potential. Supported internships which will be discussed by students in this session include Johnson & Johnson (DePuy Synthes), John Lewis and Yorkshire Water.

Event information and tickets for Supported Internships with Lighthouse Futures Trust

Human Body Themed Active-Learning Workshop

15.00, Thursday 11 March 2021

This online active-learning workshop will unite STEM with dance. The workshop is designed to be inclusive to all needs and will be supported with Makaton signing.

Event information and tickets for Human Body Themed Active-Learning Workshop

Get involved

We are proud of what we have achieved so far, but know this is just the beginning of our programme’s journey, which is now entering its fourth year in West Yorkshire. In the future, we hope to work with other like-minded organisations/volunteers to genuinely fulfil our mission of inspiring ALL young people into STEM careers.

Anyone who works, studies or conducts research in a STEM field can become an Ambassador. If you’re interested in getting involved, read more about volunteering as a STEM Ambassador—you can sign up online.

Are you a like-minded organisation interested in working with the STEM Ambassador programme? Get in touch at [email protected].

About the author

As a STEM Ambassador Engagement Officer, my role is to support STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) industry volunteers to engage with schools, colleges and community groups to raise awareness of STEM careers and inspire young people to develop their science capital.

I started my career in education as a progress tutor, responsible for the pastoral care and study experience of students aged 16–21. I then trained as a secondary teacher, spending that year on placements in several secondary schools across West Yorkshire before finding my home delivering the Business and Economics curriculum at an outstanding diverse college.

I am now delighted to be working on behalf of the Science Museum Group in delivering the STEM Ambassador programme; I am pleased to work for an organisation that shares similar values to my own and brings this to life through their commitment to their Open for All strategy. I am incredibly excited about the upcoming Open Talk series, which will touch on many different elements of inclusion.

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