Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Ignorance, Tolerance, Acceptance

As I think I've mentioned before, children's TV presenter Justin Fletcher is set to become for my children's generation of British kids what - the legend that is - Brian Cant was to my generation. Threatening (in the nicest possible way) to be the ubiquitous face of CBBC, Justin provides the voice of Milo on The Tweenies; is one of the regular pool of presenters on Tikkabilla (Play School for the twentifirst century); and presents Something Special. Something Special is a brave project, bringing children with special needs to the mainstream children's TV schedule. (Something Special aside, other programmes are signed for deaf kids in the corner of the screen on Sundays; in Scotland, that's the Gaelic-language TV slot - I guess Sunday is minority TV day at the BBC.)

When I was a kid, whenever anyone did anything clumsy or stupid in the playground they'd be called a spaz or spastic. It wasn't that kids were especially hostile towards people with Cerebral Palsy; that's just how it was then. It was ignorance, not malice. I remember the BBC trying to address the situation back then, too: the Blue Peter presenters of the day "introduced" us to a man called Joey Deacon, who had Cerebral Palsy, and regularly visited him until he died. It was an attempt to combat ignorance with education - but education alone only results in informed bigots, and the result was that the very personalised "Joey" or "Joey Deacon" replaced the generic "spastic" as the playground term of derision. That is, in part, why I think Something Special is brave; and also why I'm glad the approach is somewhat different...

People who are "different from us" often create a problem for us. We see this clearly in England at the moment in regards to the Muslim population. There is widespread ignorance regarding the many different Muslim communities living here. As far as I can make out, education - in particular, education at school, through modules on Islam in Religious Education lessons - hasn't helped. (Perhaps it has focused to much on theory of belief and not enough on actually introducing white post-Christian kids to Muslim people?) Neither, to be honest, has tolerance: tolerance has allowed different communities to live side-by-side without actually getting to know each other. As a result, it only takes a few individuals - on either side - to stir up fear of "the other" amongst the wider community of which they are a part.

Whether in relation to children with special needs, or Muslims, or any other "minority" group, we need to move beyond ignorance and beyond tolerance to acceptance - and to discover appropriate levels, or expressions, of inclusion. [Our friend Matt made a very similar point in a Letter to the Editor published in last Saturday's The Times.] In relation to kids with special needs, I see this approach to a greater degree in Something Special than I have seen in the past - it will be interesting to see how it plays out in the playground. In relation to Muslims, I'm saddened and embarrassed and angry to hear from a friend about a Muslim lady who was assaulted in the street in the centre of Sheffield, and no-one did anything about it. If there's a way of making those who are different from us feel welcome and at ease, we ought to find it. I guess the first step is to move beyond our own comfort zone...

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