“It is a lonely existence to be a child with a disability which no-one can see or understand, you exasperate your teachers, you disappoint your parents, and worst of all you know that you are not just stupid.”
– Susan Hampshire
“Intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.”
– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
When I was in Year 6, the primary school I attended ran something called a buddy program. They would assign older kids in the higher grades to mentor younger kids in the lower grades. To be their “buddy” and show them around the school and generally take care of them. I was about 9 years old.
The person I was assigned to take care of was Peter, a small Chinese boy with a learning disability and epilepsy. Everyone, even the teachers, thought he was a particularly difficult case since he was hardly able to communicate. Most of his previous buddies had little luck and didn’t really know what to do with him. The reason, sadly, was because he was unabe to speak. I was told that even though Peter was 5 years old physically, mentally he was still about 1 since his mental development was at a slower rate. He could barely say his own name.
This made it difficult for him to be at school. Wherever Peter was, there was usually the school carer close by, a wonderful lady called Linda. It was a public school with not a lot of spare resources, so when not with Linda, for the most part Peter was left to his own. Some teachers would get so frustrated they’d start yelling at him. And so they asked me to be his buddy because they thought I was quiet and patient enough to deal with him.
The first week I sat down with Linda and she explained to me that what the other buddies used to do was nothing. They would spend a day trying to teach and play with him, realise that nothing was getting through and would go do something else.
She said that I could pretty much go do whatever I want. The point of the program is to show the younger students around the school but if you can’t even talk to them, it’s a difficult problem for 9 year olds to grapple with. But most of all you could see the frustration on his face. He was trying to talk to people but they couldn’t understand and so was alienated by other students and couldn’t play with them.
I wasn’t really sure what to do either. Peter would pretty much do whatever he wanted and then Linda would chase after him. He would play in the sandbox when he wanted, draw when he wanted and you weren’t really sure how to understand what he was trying to say to you. He would communicate through hand gestures, making noises and facial expressions and you would try to decipher it. Even Linda had a hard time.
The buddy program is actually a very structured program. 2 days a week, our entire class would walk over to the other side of the school where the younger grades were and join them for the day. The teachers had a schedule of what they wanted you to do with the students. But it was hard to get Peter to follow it, or to even explain to him what structure was or meant.
I remember the first day coming home frustrated and asking my parents what I should do. My dad would say cryptically, “Sohum, sometimes people just need to learn on their own time, in their own way. All you should do is be supportive, eventually he’ll figure it out.” Thanks dad. Wise as always.
I went to school and remember thinking. What is the problem here? I can’t get Peter to do anything because he doesn’t understand what I’m saying. So maybe I need to say it in a way he does understand.
It sounds cruel, but I would go to the school library during recess and start reading about how people would train and communicate with animals. And about why and how learning disabilities even develop and how people got over them.
One really intersting book said that you can use cards to communicate. So you teach someone the meaning of a card and to point to a card when they want something and depending on which card they point to depends on what they want.
It seemed promising so I asked my teacher, Mrs Cann whether I could spend the entire week with Peter instead of just the 2 days. She was intrigued, and agreed so long as I still finished all of my homework, which my mum ended up doing for me anyway.
I tried using Yugioh cards at first. This card would mean he wanted to get a drink. This card meant he wanted to do X. This didn’t really work because the pictures were too small and complicated. And I was afraid he would tear valuable cards or put them in his mouth which would make me cry.
Linda was overseeing the whole thing and suggested maybe this would work better if the pictures were actually of what he wanted. So if he wanted to eat lunch, it would be a picture of his lunchbox. I wasn’t very good at drawing but two other girls in the class, Sharda and Lee-Marie were. Both were super artistic and could draw really well.
I begged them if they could spend one recess drawing images of things on cards. Both refused. I explained why. They agreed. One recess turned into three but their drawings looked really good. They were scarily accurate.
It worked. The book was right. We started training. It was really weird at first. We would actually prevent Peter from doing what he wanted to until he’d point at the card. He’d want to use the water bubbler, but he couldn’t do it by himself and Linda and I would refuse to help until he pointed at the water card. We would show it to him, then help him with the water bubbler. The same for everything.
It felt really mean, but it was working. Eventually he started to catch on. Within a couple weeks, he was using the cards as a crutch for basic things. Soon he was using them for everything. We started making new cards for other stuff. His teacher wanted to know what was happening. I showed her the book that explained it. She caught up to speed, Linda made copies and started laminating the cards and trying to get them done professionally.
After a month, he started getting really good with the cards. Linda and Peter would practice a lot on the program’s off days. She would later say that this was some of the easiest time she ever spent with Peter. He’d want something, she’d pull out the cards and cycle through until he pointed at the right one. Even his teacher, Mrs Kensey, got the hang of it. He still wasn’t ready to be taught at the same pace as other students but she could at least show him to do things and he’d respond. He even started to look less miserable, because finally adults weren’t getting angry at him for something he couldn’t control.
The Buddy program ended come the school holidays. All the older kids had made friends with the younger ones and they looked up to us. I’d see Peter and Linda around the school playground and go up to hang out with him. He’d give a huge smile whenever he saw me.
I graduated primary school the next year and lost track of Peter. In fact I barely keep in touch with anyone from primary school nowadays. Over a decade has gone by. I randomly get a Facebook friend request from him. It means he can now read and write well enough to use a computer. I smiled when I got it.
It was a valuable lesson about people. Systems aren’t made to fit everyone, and when they don’t, new ones should be made that try to. That in the right environment, with understanding and patience. Everyone can thrive and deserves to.