JUST LIKE YOU, JUST LIKE ME

 

Charoula and Roula are two special people in my life. We grew up together, even though Charoula couldn't follow the daily routine Roula and I shared. Wake up, get ready, go to school. She had to remain at home since suffered from multiple sclerosis. I don't recall the first time I realized she couldn't move like us. However, it was completely natural to visit her daily, talk to her, hold her hand and all this through the guidance of her mother. She complained when I was late, she yelled at her mother when she didn't like her lunch. She laughed, cried and reacted like any other person. We had a special way to communicate with each other.

I first met Roula at kindergarten school. As children, we noticed her “strange” fingers and the fact that she couldn't run easily. She was born almost with no fingers and with no left leg. She always wore an artificial limb. Let's say that we all were lucky, because our teacher guided us into accepting her just as she was.

Charoula is no longer with us. She left this world at the age of 23. I still miss her some days when I look towards her balcony where she used to sit outside during summer time. Roula is a kindergarten teacher for many years now and since she doesn't work in our hometown, Thessaloniki, we can only meet, have a cup of coffee and catch up on the latest news, during holidays. Both are very important people for me. Charoula and Roula magically taught me the value of friendship, no matter how we all look. Sometimes, it's only a matter of how we look at each other. I absolutely do not underestimate the difficulties these girls and their families had to endure, but as they say, when there is the will, there is also a way.

I would like to thank both Paul Shaw and Katie Quartano on behalf of us, teachers, who had the great opportunity to use the material of the Disabled Access Friendly campaign website. The first time I heard about their work was at a Macedonia-Thrace TESOL event. Since that day, I attended some of their presentations on various occasions and last spring I decided to use some of the lesson plans in my classes. Their hard work is a true inspiration for all of us. Teachers usually talk about the matter only if it's mentioned in a course book. We are a bit lazy to create something on our own!

During the last IP Book Exhibition held in Thessaloniki (September 2013) school owners like myself had the chance to attend a discussion regarding school problems and how to face them successfully. We also discussed the issue of organizing events in order to promote our school's public image. I was hesitant to mention what my students and I learnt from the Disabled Access Friendly week we organized at my school the previous school year. I had already mentioned another type of action, always based on the idea of the school getting a good reputation through social activities which can offer something back to the local community. However, I decided to mention the Disabled Access Friendly campaign action making absolutely clear that it shouldn't be considered as a “business tool” to attract more customers. I tried to promote the general concept of really educating students. Teachers should be able to give them the incentive for some kind of critical thinking.

I practically surprised my students. They didn't have the slightest idea we would talk about disabilities. I quickly found out that it's surely one of the taboo issues in our society. Nevertheless, the biggest surprise was the students' positive acceptance. Immediately, regardless of the class level, the students talked about their own experiences. I listened to them carefully talking about autistic siblings, disabled relatives and classmates. I felt very honored they had the chance to express themselves freely. They immediately began discussing the matter and I particularly enjoyed watching them taking the lead and practicing their speaking skills talking about something important.

We used one of the bulletin boards in the hallway to present some of their work and they also chose a name for that special week. The children themselves decided to call it “Just like you, just like me” from a lesson plan they noticed on my desk. We made clear, once the subject was revealed that it wouldn't be a week dedicated to pity for the disabled, but one dedicated to raise awareness even among ourselves!

Another great response I'd like to mention is the one from my junior classes. Young as they may be, they surprised me by proposing to make some informative posters on proper etiquette. Their drawings show that some good seeds have been planted, such as the sense of equality. It was amazing to see they drew both people in their pictures, one on a wheelchair and another standing, at the same height!

The seniors practiced all skills through the use of the lesson plans and some of the videos. Another pleasant surprise was their idea to make some brief presentations to their parents! They organized and worked on their own project collectively. We invited their parents to attend one of the seniors' classes. The students presented their specific topic they had prepared, while younger students explained in Greek for the parents who don't know English what had been said. The sense of pride, satisfaction and fulfillment was extreme. Their parents and I were deeply moved watching those kids expressing themselves in a foreign language and on such an important issue! Unfortunately, I didn't record the whole process, and it is only unfortunate, because my colleagues would get a clearer idea on how students can work, but also of the endless possibilities the use of the material can offer! It is fortunate only for us, because the memory of that week is sweeter just in our minds.

I'd like to urge my colleagues, school owners and teachers in general, to use the lesson plans and the ideas provided in the website. I'd like to thank Paul Shaw, Katie Quartano and all the contributors. They made it easy to access the material in the most friendly way! I hope more and more people will visit the Disabled Access Friendly campaign website in order to get more ideas on how to improve the facilities of their school and to realize they can exploit the possibilities to the maximum, not to get more clientele, but to open their students' minds to new ideas and views! Don't be scared of changing the syllabus just a little!

I wish everyone a great school year!

Maria Kazakou

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