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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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