Let’s learn from the pandemic and how it has brought social and economic inequalities into sharp relief, says Teresa Carroll

More than 30 young leaders in the arts, entrepreneurship, politics, sports and more are featured in Tomorrow’s leaders: a world beyond disability that was published earlier this month. They are all achieving personally, shaping their communities and generally creating a fairer society. And they all have a special educational need or disability.

The publication’s inspiration came from two sources: young people telling us that too often society gets hung up on their “need” or “disability”, rather than focusing on their aspirations and strengths, and the Power 100 list, which showcases the 100 most influential disabled people in the UK. The journalist, presenter and comedian, Alex Brooker, (presenter from The Last Leg) was voted No 1 in 2019.

FE is all about harnessing potential. However, as Dame Christine Lenehan says in the publication’s foreword, “we still have a long way to go in creating a world that is accessible and inclusive”. Many of the young people in Tomorrow’s Leaders talk about how they faced barriers along the way. As Jabe says (page 10): “I have developed resilience and am able to overcome challenges by accepting my disability and everything that comes with it.” Sadly, “the everything that comes with it” is often the expectations and judgments made by others and wider society that can create the challenges in the first place.

So how do we get to a world where we begin to see others in their totality rather than particular characteristics? Well, it’s not going to be easy. Our reflexive brain (amygdala) is programmed to make swift judgments (based on the evolutionary fight or flight principle). It is involuntary, outside our awareness, irrational, and reactionary, and is typically recruited because it is fast and effortless.

We therefore have to reprogramme our reflexive mind. It is programmed by habits, experiences and information. Becoming aware that this is how we’re behaving is the first step in making a change.

We also must listen and learn from people’s lived experience. Together we can then remove barriers and challenge structures and processes that tend to maintain and often reinforce inequalities. Jess, a law graduate and motivational speaker, who is training for the Bar, talks about being referred to as a “triple minority” as a black woman with a disability. “My glass ceiling has triple glazing but, still, I intend to break through it, taking as many people with me as possible!” (page 24). Jess and the other young leaders in this publication show what can be achieved if those of us who work within the systems in place listen to what we’re being told and work together to ensure processes and structures work for those they are supposed to serve.

Covid-19 has brought into sharp relief the structural social and economic inequalities in our society: FE providers have worked hard to mitigate them where they can. The Education and Training Foundation’s three Centres for Excellence in SEND, which aim to support all FE providers to become inclusive organisations, highlight the reality of home life for many learners. The centres reported the absence of technological devices and/or the lack of digital skills of parents and carers desperately trying to home school.

By listening to learners, parents and carers, FE and social care professionals worked together to find solutions, including access to grants to purchase laptops and, where not available, supplying laptops for home use. College technicians and teachers supported parents and carers to develop their skills so they might access and use the various digital platforms.

So let’s bring what we’ve learned to the post-Covid-19 world and use it to create a society that is more caring and inclusive. Covid-19 has allowed us to recognise how we might create a world that serves and brings out the best in us all.

I’ll leave the last word to Siena (page 32): “Never be ashamed of being different: it is this difference that makes you extraordinary and unique.”