Teenage banter is part of lunchtimes as students take a break at the Physical Assistance Centre (PAC), which provides support for students with disabilities at Hillcrest High School in Hamilton. They’re cheeky, laugh a lot and have fun, and talk about many things, including their school environment.

The centre caters for 15 students and has its own building, but most of the students study in mainstream classes. Some are in wheelchairs and some have complex medical and support needs, which the centre’s staff provide.

Elai Kerr-Rushbrooke, right, with fellow student Roisin Hassell (and Gandalf) at Weta Workshop’s studios in Wellington.

There are over 40 ORS-funded students in the school, with another centre, the Independent Living Centre, also catering for students with learning disabilities.

Year 12 student Elai Kerr-Rushbrooke says, “The PAC caters best for people like me. It’s an ideal combination because we can see other people who are like-minded, plus we spend time with other students in mainstream classes.

“But the teachers are not loose on deadlines for our school work. They expect us to be on track and to reach our goals. That’s a big thing for me.”

Ryan Ingles, 14, says, “We joke around on our breaks. There’s about six of us, it’s a mixture, including students who aren’t with PAC but are our friends and like to come and hang out. We all take the mickey, talk about problems with parents – like most teenagers.”

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Ryan Ingles, right, with other students and staff from Hillcrest PAC with Minister Tracey Martin (left, centre) during a meeting in her office.

Focusing on achievement

Hillcrest High School has a focus on achievement for all its students. The centre’s head of department Julie-Anne Richardson says, “The centre allows us to be part of the school while doing our own thing, but it also provides a safe hub where our students’ needs can be met. When they are together, they can interact and banter with each other without being judged, but teenagers also need a quiet space to chill out, and get counselling, at times. We provide that.”

Principal Kelvin Whiting says the centre and its students are included as an everyday part of the school culture. “It’s a natural fit”.

So what do the students think? Ryan, who uses a wheelchair, says, “I’m pretty happy here. We are lucky to have this facility.” He says the school is inclusive generally but for him inclusion should also mean the chance to take part in everyday sports, such as PE. “Or I’d like to try being a ref in games.”

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“Divnesh Sharma will always be remembered for his advocacy for the differently abled.” – Hillcrest High Principal Kelvin Whiting.

One of the students, Divnesh Sharma, who was in Year 12, passed away during the production of this story.

During an interview last year he said, “Inclusion to me means you are not discarded just because you have a disability. Everything here is set up for me to accomplish my goals and we have strong support from the teachers. This is a good place to come to study, it’s like a big family.”

Divnesh was a strong advocate for the students and took a major role in the organising of a trip by them to Wellington in December, which took over two years of planning. For many, it was their first-ever visit to Wellington.

Hurdles overcome

He said huge improvements are needed in society generally to accommodate people with disabilities, as he and his fellow students found when they tried to organise the trip. “It was terrible. We couldn’t get bookings on trains or planes for everyone because there’s no lifts and aisles are too narrow. We even had difficulty booking any restaurant where we could get the wheelchairs through the door.”

However, they did eventually reach their goal, and met with two ministers in Parliament, Disability Issues Minister Carmel Sepuloni and Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin, to present a petition. They also visited Weta Workshop. The petition was to request that teacher aides be paid more.

Divnesh was determined to make changes where he could and last year successfully negotiated with the Hamilton City Council to put in a disability carpark space just outside the school, which previously had none.

He said, “‘Normal’ shouldn’t be a word, because everybody is different in some way. By using it, you are trying to say that people who are different like me are in a category of weakness.”

Matt Bauernfiend.
Matt Bauernfiend

Matt Bauernfiend, Year 12, says, “I feel included at PAC. Inclusion means I am treated like there is nothing wrong with me, like I don’t have a condition. In the school grounds and in mainstream classes, kids say hello to me and that’s great.”

However, he too is frustrated at the difficulties of daily life beyond school.

“It’s crazy that it costs an arm and a leg for people with disabilities just to get somewhere. Last year, three of us students in wheelchairs went to the theatre downtown and it cost $1,200, because we couldn’t all fit into one mobility van.”

He points out the lack of disability toilets in many public venues. “All public facilities should have disability toilets and other user-friendly services for people, such as ramps, but they don’t.”

A final word from Ryan. He doesn’t like the word ‘disabled’. “It’s not a mean term but I don’t like hearing anyone use it. I think I’m just a normal person with some physical limitations,” he says.

Spotify or bust – no worries

Jay Lindsey.
Jay Lindsey

Students have a wide range of goals for the future, including being a game developer, studying sociology and becoming a lawyer. One also aims to get his song listed on Spotify.

Year 13 student Jay Lindsey’s great loves are music and computers. He’s a musician, and plays keyboards. One of his subjects at Hillcrest is music, which he attends in a mainstream class with other students, and he writes songs.

Recently, he wrote a techno-style song about the centre. It’s called The PAC Song, and is currently being produced in the school’s recording studio. The vocal is already completed, with a fellow student in music class providing the vocals. He has great hopes for it once it is finished. “I’m aiming to get it up on Spotify or iTunes – no worries,” he says. “Any money it makes will go back to the PAC to help other students.”

He uses music editing software on his MacBook and plays in a band called The Boogie Band. “They’re teenagers but last year we played at a wedding,” he says. “We do songs like Ed Sheeran’s Perfect.”

Source: Education Gazette

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