By Surjit Atwal. Someone recently said to me that in my columns I have told people what I want to do, but I haven’t said why I want to do these things.
In this column I would like to explain why I want to make a difference in education, especially for the disabled.
I am a double minority. People judge me because of how I walk and my skin colour. When they judged me, they often ignored me because they judged me to be less capable or less deserving than others. Being ignored lowered my self-esteem and made me feel worthless. It’s hard to speak up when you don’t believe you’ll be heard.
We judge people in so many ways. When I was young, even my family sometimes judged me because of my age. They told me to go watch the hockey game because they didn’t think I was old enough to have serious opinions about politics.
Because I have been judged and ignored, I don’t want other people to be ignored. I want everyone to have the same fair chance to achieve what they can. I believe that no matter who you are, you should be guaranteed three things as a basic human right:
Regardless of race, religion, colour, class, or ability, you should have all of these. The UN Charter of Human Rights gives food and shelter as basic rights. No-one should be out in the rain without shelter, or going hungry. I want to add education as a third key right, because without it you can’t really have the other two. If you have no education, you can’t find food and shelter, make good choices of food or shelter, or provide them for others.
This might seem strange to some people. Most people think of education as going to school, to learn to read and write.
We don’t need to go to school to eat or find a dry place to get out of the rain. But for me, education is so much more than just the subjects taught in school. An education is about the experience you gain in being with people and working with them. Education takes you into the wider world. It builds a network of people much bigger than your family, people who know you and watch out for you, who have your back. This network gives you the confidence to step out into the world and contribute to society. When you have confidence, you can keep trying until you find the right place for you, whether that is through work, or volunteering, or building new families.
Education changed my life. It did not just teach me English or politics. The most important thing my education gave me was life skills, such as the ability to work with big groups, to be prepared, to make presentations and communicate, and to negotiate arrangements – it gave me practice in the things I have found I need to do in my job. I learned that people would ask for my opinion, and I could be considered equal because of my mind. I became part of a network with other students, teachers, and people I met in the community through my education.
In my case, the skills and confidence did not come until my university education. In university I got equal treatment for my mind. Classmates asked for my opinion just like anyone else’s, because I could think and work as well as anyone else, even if I walk differently. In university I began to believe that I could hold a job, or go on to graduate school. I finally felt that I did not just know the same things that educated people know, but I also had the same opportunities to build a better future for myself and others. This is the confidence and the passion I have brought into my job as Community Outreach Co-ordinator.
All of this could have happened in high school, if I had had the support there. Many of the people I know in the community did not go to university, and they have all the confidence they need. They had already achieved self-worth and a support network by the time they left high school. People who are not integrated sufficiently in the classroom can become confident and find a support network later, but it is harder. One of the things I hope to be able to do is to improve the chances that disabled students will be able to get the level of support they need to become part of an effective network.
Everyone needs education so they have the chance to become part of a network of support, build their self-esteem and confidence, and participate in society. There is nobody from whom we can step back and say they don’t deserve help, or they shouldn’t get help from us.
Now I have explained why I believe education is life-changing, I would like to come back to what I hope to do. I am interested not just in improving education for the disabled, but in education in general. Education is a concern for the whole community, not only school boards, teachers, and parents. How can we come together to find ways to integrate more people more effectively into the supportive networks they need to function at their best in society?
Please feel free to comment either publicly in the comments box below or email me mailto:Surjit.Atwal@leg.bc.ca your thoughts.