The Voices of The Voiceless – How do we learn to listen to them?

The Voices of The Voiceless – How do we learn to listen to them? – by Gosia Kwiatkowska & Kanchan Kerai from the RIX Centre

 As the end of the school academic year approaches, we stop, think, and reflect on what have we done this year that really mattered to us; something we are grateful for.

The RIX Centre – Social Work Students Advocacy Pathway project

RIX Centre is a research centre based at the University of East London and we do a lot of inclusive research with people with a range of abilities. One of the inclusive projects that we worked on, together with Charlton Park Academy (CPA) was the Social Work Students Advocacy Pathway.

This year we had 12 social work students who buddied up with 12 CPA students with lived experience of most complex challenges to communication.

At the beginning of their placement our Social Work Students were apprehensive, scared of the unknown and didn’t feel ready to find ways of communicating and engaging with the CPA young people. Their initial mindsets were the biggest barrier to communication.

The young people were very patient with them, they were curious and welcomed our Social Work Students in their classrooms with big smiles on their faces. After a few weeks the university students’ initial feelings of anxiety have dissolved and the learning started to happen.

CPA young people were able to teach our Social Work Students the meaning of life, sensory communication techniques and how to listen. They did that in 12 weeks of interactions, building their RIX Wikis together and participating in joined activities, actively listening, and learning from each other.

As the placement came to an end, our students, future Social Workers have had their mindset altered. They were able to tune in and recognise that speech can happen on a sensory level. They would not have been able to learn this from the best book or an article; they needed to engage with CPA young people who face the most complex communication barriers in their lives; as only those young people were able to teach our Social Work students how to overcome their own challenges and to understand that everyone have something to say.

The social work students have learned that each young person, no matter their perceived disability, has the capability and capacity to engage, to communicate and have their voice heard.

Communication isn’t just about linguistics. It’s about getting to know the young person, building a relationship with them, learning from their behaviours, it is about familiarising themselves with bodily or facial expressions a young person makes or words, sounds they may utter. In understanding these things about a young person and adjusting how the social work students communicated, they were able to effectively engage and communicate in meaningful ways.

When we receive feedback from the social work students that they felt ‘honoured’ to have had the opportunity to have worked with the young people at CPA or that they understand what ‘real inclusion’ means and how to create an environment that supports and promotes this; It makes everything worthwhile.

At a recent graduation ceremony attended by people with a lived experience of learning disability and autism, staff, UEL Social Work students, the RIX Centre inclusive co research team. We celebrated the culmination of the RIX Centre’s inclusive research projects and the UEL Social Work students completing and participating in the ‘advocacy pathway placement’.

The atmosphere during the whole graduation event was wonderful to behold. There was singing, dancing, moving of hands, blinking of eyes as those present celebrated in their own unique ways.

The young people at CPA never cease to amaze us. We are grateful that you are in our worlds. Without you we could not have move forward in our inclusive research approaches. Carry on the fantastic work, we eagerly look forward to working with you after the summer holidays. Have a wonderful break.