A classroom of Year 1 and 2 children is watching with curiosity as Alison, one of the Just Different presenters, prepares herself to start her workshop with them. Alison’s mother took a quarter of one Thalidomide tablet when she was pregnant which resulted in Alison being born with short arms. The children clearly have a lot of questions running through their heads and they’ll get a chance to ask them later.
Just Different is a small Sussex charity, launched in 2008 by its founder, Toby Hewson, a young man with cerebral palsy. Just Different creates positive social attitudes towards disability and difference among children and young people. They do this through the delivery of interactive, thought-provoking, educational and inspirational workshops that are written, created and delivered by disabled adults.
When visiting schools, Toby observed that children and young people responded to his physical difference with imagination and curiosity. They viewed his wheelchair and speech synthesizer (communicator) with fascination, learning that they are simply tools to assist him with his active life.
Alison starts by saying how ‘we are all here today to celebrate how different we all are from each other’ and asks the children in what ways are we different from each other? Different coloured eyes, hair, heights and so on are the replies. Then Alison leads the children onto thinking about how we all do things in different ways – some people are good at running, some people have to wear glasses. We all have different ways of doing things, depending on our strengths and the way our bodies are. She shows the children pictures of her at school, where she was a tremendous athlete, passing her driving test in an adapted car, getting married and with her now grown-up daughters. The point she makes very well to the children is that the only difference between people is the way they have to do things because of their differences. She goes on to illustrate this very effectively by, among other things, taking her shoes off and asking the children to nominate objects in the classroom for her to pick up with her feet. Then she shows them how she can write with her feet.
Then it is question-and-answer time and the children ask all the sorts of questions that Alison is very used to answering: “How do you do your hair?” “How do you brush your teeth?” “Did you get bullied at school?” and “Do you like having short arms?”. The last of these she answers by saying that she’s never had longer arms and so she is just as used to having shorter arms as they are to having longer arms. “I’m happy with myself and I wouldn’t change anything.”
Sussex Community Foundation agrees with Just Different that real change is possible in the way that people view those with disabilities and difference which is why we have given them five grants, worth £13,459 since 2010.