Why take the barriers down?

For 9 consecutive years I gave up 8 full days at Christmas to volunteer at a shelter for homeless people. ‘Gave up’ is a commonly used term for such apparent altruistic behaviours but the truth is, as for most people, my behaviours were reinforced by the rewards I reaped from being part of an project that seemed to really make a difference to a group I genuinely cared about.

I chose the same shifts each year. 3pm until 11pm. The action shift. The drinking shift. The dinner shift. The awake shift. The quarrelling shift. The A&E shift, at times. After a couple of years, I progressed to take on more responsibilities during the week. A ‘Key’ volunteer, with a radio, who was called to either help with a difficult situation directly, or divert likely causes that might escalate, and help ensure that volunteers and other ‘guests’ were kept safe.

There were other strategies for this. Metal ‘event’ barriers could be seen distributed throughout the shelter and volunteers were posted in groups on various exists and entrances areas, as security. Guests were searched upon arrival and items considered potentially dangerous were confiscated. However, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to follow the lead of someone who wanted to change things.

His view was that the barriers, security and searching contributed to the number of incidents. He suggested it enabled the people who used the shelters to abdicate a level of responsibility for their own behaviours. He spoke of the creation of a ‘them and us’ attitude where we were all in fact, on the same side, wanting solutions to the problems these vulnerable people faced. His views were not popular, at the start.

Over the following 7 years that I volunteered he would direct, upon the start of the shift, the barriers being taken down. He insisted guests were served their dinner at a table by the volunteers, respectfully, and not made to queue or bow their heads at a servery to have their basic needs met. He changed the radios from the handheld ‘security look’ to discrete ear-pieces. However, at each new shift we would find the barriers had been put back up by the previous shifts and guests had been queuing for their other meals.

The leap of faith I had taken in his leadership paid off. Over those years, the number of incidences did indeed drop significantly, the ‘them and us’ feel to the shelter became less apparent and the trusting relationships that developed enabled more vulnerable people to access services they may have been unwilling to before. The other shifts, full of equally caring and committed volunteers, changed their practice to copy ours. The guests were no longer searched on arrival. These changes had no cost to implement but significant tangible benefits for not just the guests but the volunteers as well.

I stopped volunteering when I became pregnant with my first child, who was later diagnosed with classic autism at 2yrs 3 months. It was then my turn to experience what it was like to be kept behind a barrier for the protection of those there to help. It was when I learned that I needed to bow to a servery to have my and my child’s basic needs met. It was when I learned that people had overt communication systems they would use to attempt to keep the peace at the expense of our relationship. It was when I learned I must now always wait in line as the things that are most important to me are controlled by someone else.

As is the case for many parents of a child with SEND, I have sadly had plenty of cause to be disruptive and challenging. These barriers I describe are effective for the mostly very good people who control the system, as they were in the example I gave of the shelter, but what if they could be removed? What if we gave parents more responsibility for their behaviours by taking them down? What if relationships were more important than policy? What if access was given to the currently guarded entrances? What then? Who could possibly benefit?

As a parent of a child with SEND I and other SEND parents have about as much power to implement such a suggestion as one of our vulnerable homeless people would have had. If we are to see change such as this is HAS to come from teachers and those who work in Education. Who is willing to take it on?