Thursday, September 1, 2016

The value of asking - my learning from working with people with disabilities

Rachel Burnham writes: A couple of weeks ago the #LDInsight twitterchat explored how we work with people with disabilities on learning.  Many of the participants identified that this was not something that they had experienced very often within their professional careers.   My experience is rather different and looking back I realise that I have fairly regularly worked with colleagues and clients with disabilities.   These have included people with visual and hearing impairments, people with mobility problems and people with dyslexia, which takes many forms.  Actually, the disability comes from the environment, a failure to adapt the learning programme and our attitudes, rather than the condition itself. 

I thought it might be useful to share two key learning points from my experience.  I make no claims to expertise and I am definitely still learning about how to more effectively make learning accessible to all.

My first learning point, came from very early in my time in training – it definitely was training then!   I think it was only about the third or fourth programme that I had been involved in delivering and I’ve never forgotten it. We were working with an external client on a two day programme.   To our surprise one of the participants in the programme was blind and we hadn’t known that until we turned up.  I remember feeling so embarrassed that we hadn’t known in advance and also feeling that we had been dropped in it by the client.   When we reflected afterwards, myself and my co-trainer, realised that actually we had never asked about whether any of the participants had any particular needs.  We had just assumed that they wouldn’t.

So we changed our practice and from then on always asked as part of the commissioning and identification of learning needs. 

I think it is worth building this kind of prompt into our processes and practices – so I ask this when I am talking with stakeholders or I might build it into an application form or discussion with individual learners.   I think this sits alongside asking about dietary requirements and in an ideal world shouldn’t really be any more difficult to ask and answer than that.  I know that not everyone wants to share this information – I think by including it in, we start to build an environment in which it is OK to be open and explicit about our individual needs.   

I know I am influenced in this by my personal experiences of disability – for example since I became diabetic, dietary requirements and specific needs go hand in hand.  As a child measles damaged my hearing, which in turn affected my schooling for a short while, until I was able to have some treatment.  I am comfortable with being open about this – but then I work for myself.  And I know that there are many disabilities that are perceived far more negatively than diabetes.

So my first piece of learning is  to ask the question.

My second piece of learning is that when it comes to making adaptations to enable an individual with a disability to participate in a learning experience, it is always worth speaking with that person and asking for their advice.  Don’t make assumptions or work from generalisations.   Many disabilities impact on people very differently.  In my experience, it is always worth talking to the individual directly - they are an expert on their needs and have usually discovered what works for them best.

I was once tasked with organising an induction/initial training programme for an individual joining one of our regional teams, in an office at some distance from where I was based.  Normally, their manager would have had this responsibility, but they had just moved onto to a new role outside of the organisation themselves.   The challenge was that we had severe budget restrictions at the time, so I had no money to travel in person to the location and this was so long ago that there was no online way of communicating in our organisation (hard to imagine now!) and so I needed to mostly work with her over the phone.  And she was deaf.  So, I contacted her before she formally started and asked her advice.  She was able to suggest the type of modified phone that would best suit her, where to order in from and how to get funding to do this!  I asked her what else would help her induction and she made a number of other practical suggestions including on office layout, as she used lip-reading and so it was important that she could easily see her work colleagues when they were speaking together.  I was so glad I asked her advice!!

So, my second piece of learning is to ask the individual concerned for their advice.   In fact, I find I increasingly ask the question of all the people I work with ‘What can I do to make this learning experience work better for you?’

Most L&D professionals I come into contact with are keen for learning to be accessible for all.  I suspect as a profession that we have not done as much as we could to make this a reality.  Time for a change.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance. 

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