A Blog about Reasonable Adjustments – Or Victoria and the Pink Wig and other stories By Catrina Lowri- Founder of Neuroteachers
This is a blog about reasonable adjustments and how and why to apply them in mainstream settings and schools. To illustrate my point, I’m going to tell you a stories which should explain to you why reasonable adjustments are necessary, how easy it can be to grant them, and how much of a difference they can make.
Under UK law, schools and other places of work, are expected to make reasonable adjustments, to allow people with protected characteristics the equity of opportunity with others.
In principle this is simple. It can be achieved, and for the most part, reasonable adjustments are low-cost, easy to implement and require very little time on planning. In short for neuro diverse and disabled people like me they are small things which make a big difference. And yet not every school seems able to provide reasonable adjustments in every case. This is never a case of deliberately flouting the law or because schools don’t care.
Schools, teachers, TA and other educators care deeply about their students and their outcomes and aspirations.
Rather there are three main reasons why these adjustments are not carried out; firstly, staff may be unclear as to exactly what constitutes a reasonable adjustment and how these can be implemented, secondly there is an underlying fear that, were reasonable adjustments made for one individual, the other students, who maybe didn’t have the same needs, may feel that the same adjustments should apply to them, which could be undesirable. So, to be fair, staff are inadvertently unfair. Finally, and I mean this in the politest way, there is often an element of lack of imagination.
It’s very difficult to be imaginative or curious when you are stressed.
And dealing with students who have a large range of additional needs can be incredibly stressful. Especially if they feel a little out of their depth. Or perhaps haven’t come across a student who is quite as complex or unique as the one they see in front of them. When you are under duress, it’s very easy to say no and much more difficult to say yes or ask the question ‘why can’t we do this?’
Victoria was an 11-year-old girl who attended a mainstream secondary school in England. She was also autistic, dyslexic and rather bright, enjoyed art, Music and drama and had a small but close net group of friends in her year group. Victoria took real pride in her appearance. She enjoyed wearing her uniform of smart trousers and a blazer and tie. She always like to be neat and tidy and would become distressed if paint or dirt got on her uniform. She had a key worker and form tutor who understood her and would help her if she ever became upset. School was going well for her and then, at the start of February a sickness bug started to go around local schools.
Unfortunately, Victoria contracted this illness from another student and became very suddenly nauseous, and then vomited, whilst sitting in her tutor room during break time. Even though there were only two adults present and none of her friends were with her at
the time Victoria was both devastated and ashamed that she had lost control in this way and soiled her uniform. She quickly recovered from the sickness bug but was unable to attend school due to high anxiety levels and crushing embarrassment as what she saw as a shameful event. She believed that her friends would find her disgusting and they would somehow know exactly what happened even though none of them had been around. This slipping of the mask ( see my blog on autistic masking ) was enough to cause autistic burnout in Victoria, which in turn led her to heightened anxiety at an almost clinical level. As a result of this she did not attend school for nearly 3 months.
The Pink Wig
I started to work with Victoria when the school had tried everything that they could possibly think of. Be under no illusion, the school was truly inclusive. They had a lot of experience of working with autistic learners and had been highly thought of for their SEND provision with integrating children who had been less successful at other mainstream settings. The staff are very caring and highly informed when it comes to understanding autistic student’s needs. Yet this situation was beyond them. The key worker and form tutor were especially devastated by Victoria’s lack of attendance and felt like they had been failing her in their attempts.
So, when I started to work with the school morale was low. And they were just about ready to give up. My first action was to find out as much information as possible from all parties involved. I then called an informal meeting at Victoria’s house so that we could listen to her, and find out what exactly she needed in order to be able to return to school. Victoria agreed to meet with me, her key worker, her form tutor, and the head of year after
school one day. After some gentle questioning she was able to tell us the three things she needed to feel safe and ready to cross the threshold, back into school.
Importantly, Victoria did not wish to be recognised by her peers. She certainly had a flare for the dramatic and joy to dressing up and playing different characters to comedic affect. She had one character that she called Nancy who wore a pink wig cut into a bob hairstyle. Whilst Victoria didn’t feel that she could walk through the school corridors holding her head up high, she felt that she could dressed as Nancy. To do this, she would, of course need to be allowed to wear the pink wig into school. The second thing she needed was what she referred to as “private lessons”. In the literal sense of the phrase, this meant she wanted to have her lessons in private away from other students. Finally, she only wanted to work on either drama, art or music. After the meeting we left with promises to meet early the next morning and discuss how we could put a plan into place in school. Victoria felt relieved that she had been listened to.
How did I persuade a very conservative and traditional headteacher to allow Victoria to wear a pink wig to school?
Like I said at the beginning of this blog, it’s very easy to say no if you are stressed or feel under duress. In this case the school has struggled for three months, so I knew I had to tread lightly when talking to the head, with him I already had a pretty good relationship. I expected him to say no immediately. He was, after all, a stickler for uniform rules, and I had had previous discussions with him about a young man in year 11 being allowed to wear shorts during winter, due to his sensory needs. Although the head had eventually conceded, this conversation had taken some work.
I finally persuaded the Head to agree to the wig wearing by asking him a question that I had put to him several times before; “if one of your students were standing on the edge of a cliff and you needed to buy them 10 Mars bars in order to persuade them to come down, what would you do?”
In this situation you are unlikely to present them with a PowerPoint on the importance of healthy diet, and toothbrushing. Nor are you going to give them a biology lesson on the reaction of sugar in the bloodstream. Nor discuss how this can make holes in the teeth enamel, will cause overweightness which could lead to diabetes. You’re most likely cause of action in this situation would be to give them the Mars bars and worry about the ongoing effect upon their health and well-being after they’ve come back down from the cliff.
After all, jumping off a cliff is for worse for your health and eating 10 mars bars would be.
Anxious and attenders are on the edge of a cliff. The act of attending school regularly can mitigate the likelihood of a child becoming mentally ill, or leading to addiction, homelessness, physical ill health, and several other health or socio-economic issues.
By not attending school they miss out socially and it can affect their well-being without even considering the effect that it has upon their education, levels of attainment and exam results. The head I was working with acknowledge this and reluctantly agreed to allow Victoria to wear the wig, because although this was a small concession on his part, it would make a massive difference to outcomes for Victoria.
What happened to the wig?
Victoria came into school almost every day for three weeks wearing the wig. As weather got warmer, she decided that the wig was uncomfortable, so she took it off during her “private lessons”. Pretty soon after that she decided that she no longer needed the wig, or to be Nancy and went back to being Victoria, a small but mighty, bright, and feisty clever autistic girl.
So, the wig returned to the dressing up box where it came from, and by the time Victoria was in year nine she was attending school almost full time again. The wig although temporary, and insignificant in the grand scheme of running a large secondary school, felt like a large concession to the headteacher if you’d himself as both firm, fair and inclusive. He confided in me a couple of months later that he was sure he had made the right decision in making this concession, and that he was delighted with the progress that Victoria had made. It was one step closer to becoming a truly inclusive school.
Even as a headteacher with 30 years’ experience you can always learn from your students. The wig incident ,as the head and I joked afterwards, had been a steep learning curve for the head. Even though this has been difficult for him, he agreed that saying yes had been the right thing to do.