Liquorice allsorts: The varieties of being human

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Liquorice allsorts: The varieties of being human

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The basis of inclusion, whether pertaining to the psyche, the family, the school, the community or the nation is the reality and importance of diversity. The natural diversity we find inherent in being human, in humans and the human experience. It is how this issue is dealt with that determines whether inclusion of the diverse elements will be part of the whole.

Based on my own experience, years of grappling trying to reach an understanding that was respectful, true and useful, observing  people and most recently working on the inclusion programme at the school, this is the way I have come to understand the notion of  the diversity of human beings and their experience. It is clear, simple and  aims to not be value neutral (vehemently so!) and is I believe true.


Street guitarist (Marcello Calabrese) plays Stairway to Heaven – YouTube

Stairway to Heaven Jimmy Page Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck – YouTube

The rules, yes the rules. Is there a single instance (not in a school education programme) where human beings gladly share and respect the same good rules? Anyway I am going off on a tangent; back to the liquorice.

The basis of human existence is biological; without biology there is no life, if there is no body no soma there is no human life. The basis of our personal existence is neuro-biological, the body and the brain. We find the origins of our individual lives in our biology, our neurology our genetics.

The varieties of human experience

The interaction between our neuro-biology and the exigencies (demands, pressures, requirements) of living in the world presents each of us with our unique human being.

Where the biology came from in the first place, creation, evolution is a position of faith which I respect and don’t claim to understand.

My description above might suggest to some that I do not believe that we each possess a soul, a psyche, a mind, a spirit – I am not suggesting that to be the case at all.

What I think is true is that while mental/mind states arise from physical states they are not reducible to physical properties, they are epiphenomenal (a secondary phenomenon separate and resulting from another).  Put simply our minds exist and are different from our bodies when we are alive but when we are dead, when there is no longer soma, there is no longer a mind.

Alternatively some believe that the brain is the mind, psyche, soul and spirit and that these so called independent phenomena can be broken down into neural elements isolated as specific locations in the architecture of the brain.

The mind-body problem: neuro-physiology of looking and seeing

I am neither a student of philosophy nor neuro-physiology, so forgive my ignorance, I am trying to describe what I think is true.

So each of us has a biological, neurological and genetic origin.

Even when the neuro-biology of a person started out as one thing and was changed by something else, including in-utero, biology and neurology will still form the fundamental description of the person.

So if a neonate suffers brain damage due to anoxia at birth, febrile convulsions, foetal alcohol syndrome, traumatic brain injury (falling off a horse with no helmet), and exposure to nuclear radiation (I worked with a child who grew up in Chernobyl) we are still left with a neuro-biological reality that can be delineated descriptively.

BBC News – Chernobyl’s legacy recorded in trees

I am neither being indifferent to nor trivialising the reality of disease, disorder and illness or the tragedy of these on the lives of children, parents and people generally.

I have learned very well that a vital component of working successfully to identify and provide support to children and to get parental support for this was to recognise, acknowledge and understand the parental grief; the loss of not getting the child they hoped for and the tragedy of ill children.

Welcome to Holland

I, like everyone else yearn for medical science to find ways to heal the human body, find cures for all illness. I pray that ethical stem cell research creates ways for damaged human cells to be regrown and bring life back in myriad ways. That genetics will find ways to remove or deactivate diseases that ravage us.

Stem Cells

BBC News – Pioneering adult stem cell trial approved by Japan

As I am writing I wonder what happens to the world with a population that lives longer due to medical science; that is if all people, rich or poor have access to such interventions which I doubt.

Rich poor

The gap between rich and poor is bad for our health – Healthy Debate

BBC News – Rich-poor divide accelerating, says OECD

But that we leave to others in their noble fields of endeavour. My concern is accepting, parenting and educating children as they are whatever that may be.

So what kinds of neuro-biology did we see at the school? Kids who…

  • Have blue, brown or green eyes and blond brown, red or black hair.
  • Play the piano like a maestro
  • Struggle to focus attention on mental sit down tasks.
  • Have exceptionally high mathematical ability
  • Cannot sit still in a classroom
  • Have a high V-max oxygen metabolism capacity and win cross country races easily
  • Have a predisposition to chemical addiction
  • Have excellent eye hand coordination
  • Have cerebral palsy
  • Have Down’s Syndrome
  • Are dyslexic
  • Have Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Have 10% vision
  • Are deaf
  • Have generalised anxiety

…..Amongst many others

So, a child labelled Asperger’s will struggle to distinguish between literal and figurative. At the school we would have regular fire drill evacuations. The child with Asperger’s would run to me and ask where the fire was. I explained that although the fire evacuation siren did sound, loudly, and although every person in the building was quickly evacuated out of the school to a safe place where a register could be taken, there was actually no fire. This was something he struggled to comprehend.

Can we use this descriptive reality in a constructive non-judgmental way?

So what am I endeavouring to say? It’s really quite simple. We start with the universal value that everybody has the right to belong and be valued for who they are. We need to be who we are, we need not only to be accepted for who we are but more importantly valued for who we are. The greater that value is seen in action not words the closer we get to the true meaning of justice and democracy.

It is how we, each of us and “society” respond to our variations that I am trying to get to. As a parent, educator, psychologist, not a medical doctor, I am saying that to stay true to the inclusive supportive model we should attempt to be purely descriptive of the nature of the person in phenomenological terms.

Describing things exactly as they are with absolutely no value placed on any description (bracket out value laden words). Get to know it inside and out, do whatever can be done to make things better, easier and more possible by medical and any other interventions, if it remains in some form or another make peace with it…give it a place to live.

The thing is once the dust has settled and we have done everything in our power to heal and cure we are left with the reality, it is what it is and it is this that I have to live with. It is at this point that the issue of being supportive emerges as the best response to our variations.

What I am talking about is a support group concept; support GT, Grand Turismo. Supportive education and supportive parenting structured towards helping people build lives of value irrespective of who and what they are and what they can or cannot do.

shit for brains

Berry cartoons

In a school or family setting the key to this idea is to recognise how one variety of person meets the demands of daily living as compared with how another variety of person meets the demands of daily living and thus ascertain what if any support is required also remembering that different contexts elicit different demands and different ranges of potential responses.So here it is. With the inclusive school programme over the years I have come to a conclusion  that the fairest way to see people and their lives is to speak of varieties, assortments if you will,  not exceptionalities, not differences, not abnormalities, not specialness…just varieties; liquorice allsorts, each person delicious and yummy.

That is all.

It may seem that the issue here is comparison; the reason we compare is to contrast the differing needs and coping strategies of each person and what they need to achieve success through their own efforts. It takes discipline to stop there and not proceed to judgement, competitiveness but it is really wonderful if it can be done.

What is it like for a person living with OCD, for example, to meet the demands of daily living? Note: Removing barriers to learning is providing support.

At the start of each new school year as we waded through the accumulated files (labels) in preparing profiles for the teachers I began to ask myself what the importance of these words were.  The nexus of context, demand and coping came to be a framework that allowed me to usefully make sense of the labels ascribed to people, particularly children. I will elaborate on this later.

During my psychology honours year at Rhodes University we were exposed to phenomenological psychology.  For me the essence of this approach was the need to be descriptive of the person’s reality, bracketing out variables, personal and cultural that hindered seeing the situation as pure phenomena.  I began to use these labels not to describe illnesses, disorders etc but to describe the reality of the individual in relation to the demands made upon them by the context they found themselves in. The crucial corollary to this perspective was then to deal with the varieties in relation to the demands in a practical judgemental free manner.

Rhodes University

Lara (Head of Special Education at the school) and I were presenting a workshop to a private girl’s school in Johannesburg. It was late in the afternoon, we had been presenting at KDL the whole day and we were exhausted. So too were the teaching staff in the audience. I didn’t have the strength to present the whole inclusion project and then argue it with tired, reluctant teachers who were forced to be at the workshop.

So instead of persisting with the 20 shot I let go and went for the 19 shot; not the top score but still a good score on the dart board.


I asked the staff to break into groups, grab three or four people around them and sit together with pencil and paper and to have their imaginations ready. Off the top of my head I gave them a scenario.

A kid had enrolled at their school for grade 10.

“We have a female human being in grade 10 at a school in Johannesburg who wishes and is required to study and pass at least seven subjects ranging from Mathematics to Life Orientation. She will be required to attend and move around to classes for the different subjects as teachers teach from their own rooms.

Classes each have computer linked smart boards and are situated on three floors with no lifts just staircases. Teachers hand out excellent typed subject notes to all the girls. All girls are required to partake of weekly physical education, usually a short cross-country run over a wetland area in close proximity to the school.

Oh yes, the kid has only 10% vision in her left eye and none in her right eye.”

I then digressed (as I always do) to ask the teachers if they knew of any person with “special needs” in their families or their social circles – amazing when you do this – the reticence and/or the relief is palpable.

I posed the following challenge to the teachers. “Given that this child has the ability to pass matric, what would you do / do differently / change practically to make it possible for her to successfully navigate all of the regular demands of grade 10 to matric at your school?”

I described the situation as it was no more or less, with no use of labels such as illness, disorder, abnormality, special needs etc.

Maybe just being thankful that I chose not to lecture them they dived into the challenge with gusto, loud voices, shouting over each other, animated and eager to use their imaginations in pure problem solving mode; play! They deliciously ignored the whys and wherefores of the emotive and contentious issues surrounding inclusion in the mainstream.

Is inclusion right? Is it fair to the normal kids? Can we meet their needs? Shouldn’t they be at Special Schools? Will they be mocked, tormented and ostracised? Why should I have to teach an abnormal kid in my class of normal kids? Won’t they slow us down? Won’t my child suffer because they’re slow and make puerile demands of the teacher’s time?

Why inclusion?

Inclusion Press

They came up with suggestions, innovations, and strategies which they delighted in presenting back to the whole group.

I’m not claiming that it is as easy as that, it certainly is not. Problems and resistance come with the territory, but even if just momentarily we can leave the value laden anxieties and objections behind and just see what is there to be seen and respond to it normally, like we would to any kid who needs support.

We had a belief that if teachers were expected to manage mixed ability classes they had to have a clear picture of the child they were teaching. There were some professional colleagues who fumed at what they saw as a breach of confidentiality by divulging information to teachers. Is there another way?

The issue was not the confidential information; the issue was the understanding the teacher could have of how this particular child coped with the demands of schooling with their particular liquorice allsorts and how to channel their education of and relationship with the child accordingly.


A funny cartoon… but there is nothing more brutal than treating each child equally, the same, because it is thought to be fair.  If you don’t believe me just ask a kid who has no vision, who is trying to run and enjoy a cross-country with her friends in a wetland if it’s fair to treat all kids the same.

The answer will be yes, treat each kid the same; each must have access to belonging, other kids, quality education, a supportive environment. The answer will be no, I am blind don’t expect me to undertake written tests or run a cross-country alone in the dark.

Sorry if you were expecting a yes or a no, life is not usually black or white, sometimes its black and white….and grey. Liquorice Allsorts

We all have hundreds of DNA flaws, UK geneticists say.

The Human Genome Project (HGP)

Human Embryonic Stem Cell

Blind Teen Keeps On Running

Adapting Games, Sports, and Recreation for Children and Adults who are Deaf-Blind