Exploring Disabilities to Gain Empathy

Posted on by Sarvnaz Taherian

Exploring how disabilities affect people’s participation in physical activity: A High School Project, led by students.

Auckland’s Hobsonville Point Secondary School opened its shiny new doors in 2014. This school is unlike any other currently in the country, and I am not exaggerating when I say that it is an educational utopia (others agree!), both in its beautiful physical design and their unique teaching approach.

The students at this school do not attend single subject classes, but instead take specialised learning modules that combine learning areas.

Teachers are actually “learning coaches”, who come together and help the students develop projects based on specific concepts. This approach aims to make learning more genuine, enables students to become adaptive, open-minded and engaged in their learning.

You won’t see students here regurgitating what their teachers write on a board- they are taught to think for themselves, and develop real world problem solving skills.

This term a group of year 9 and 10 students worked on a module called Modification and Equality for Arohanui Through the Hobsonville Habits (MATHH).

Arohanui is the school’s special education unit (which is a satellite special education school). Throughout the past nine weeks these students have explored how disabilities can affect people’s participation in physical activity- through a participative approach.

The students developed ways of experiencing how it feels to have a variety of disabilities. They took the time to understand the specific needs of the students in Arohanui to transform their ability to participate in physical education. They applied concepts from measurement and geometry to model physical education equipment and activities to transform participation. They also had to refine physical activity and sport for the Arohanui students by transforming games, activities, equipment, space and rules. The overall impact was inclusion for all. In essence MATHH incorporated elements of physical education, psychology (understanding behaviour and individual differences) mathematics and iterative design processes.

Their first step was to develop an in depth understanding of the individual they were working with. Asking questions such as, what are your hobbies/interests? What do you want to get better at? What is your favourite colour? Do you like working alone or with people?

Because the students at Arohanui had unique and sometime complex needs, particularly when it came to communication, they were given some tips on how to work with students with special needs. Among others, these covered using visual, auditory or tactile cues, being flexible, being observant and establishing a backup plan.

One project within the MATHH module asked the students to understand what it may be like to play soccer when you have a visual impairment. To achieve ‘empathy’ the students used blindfolds to first understand what it feels like to be in a sporting environment that involves vision. The students reported feeling vulnerable and confused, and interestingly how much their vision had helped them hear what other people in their team telling them. Having the loss of one sense made it difficult for them to comprehend instruction. Because they had the opportunity to experience first hand what it was like to have a visual impairment, they were better able to modify the game of soccer so that it would be both effective and enjoyable.

I interviewed a handful of the students to see how they perceive things to have changed since the start of the term. Before the introduction of MATHH, they had hardly any interaction with the students from Arohanui. They felt that there was a clear separation between them (an ‘us and them’ mentality).

At first they didn’t quite know how to talk to them, some were even scared because a number of students had unpredictable behaviour. A teacher mentioned that within three-four weeks, the students managed to establish beautiful partnerships.

They could communicate effectively with even non-verbal students, implement changes to the physical activities to suit both the interests and needs of the students.

I think this module is remarkable, especially for shaping the future of our society. These are 13 and 14 year old teenagers, who can show that it takes very little time and effort to create an inclusive environment for all. It’s a very beautiful experience to see how excited the students get when all are achieving their goals. It makes me very happy to ponder what will continue to grow out of this module and the flow on effects these learnings will have on the everyday lives of all of the students who took part and the visionary teachers who put the module together.

Originally published in AttitudeLive Blog: Opinion: Exploring Disabilities to Gain Empathy

You can read more about our involvement at the Hobsonville Point Secondary and other schools in the Educational Workshops about Brain-Sensing and related Technologies blog post.