Lola Nicolouleas is on a mission to break down the barriers facing people with disabilities who wish to work in the very sector that supports and empowers them.
This challenge has taken Lola—a lead teacher in FSSI’s Vocational Education program—to the US, UK and Europe, as the recipient of a Vocational Education and Training International Practitioner Fellowship.
“For me, doing the Fellowship was about having more people with disabilities included in their own sector,” Lola explains.
“It was about providing an inclusive learning space for people with disabilities.”
“I wanted to find out what we need to know to make this happen.”
The Fellowship allowed Lola to immerse herself in the practices of other countries’ primary schools, high schools and universities, and to bring fresh ideas and inspiration back to Australian classrooms.
Fellows are encouraged to use the opportunity to foster personal growth, as well as gathering knowledge to enrich their sector.
Lola’s Fellowship focussed on international best practice for supporting people with disabilities in vocational education settings, including:
- How a classroom’s physical dimensions can impact inclusivity.
- How to support people with disabilities to enable them to undertake mainstream VET.
- Professional development opportunities for teachers.
Or to put it another way; “What changes can we make to ensure that disability isn’t a barrier to learning?”
Lola’s journey started in the United States, at Landmark College Putney, and continued in Ireland (Trinity College) and Europe (European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education in Belgium and France), finishing off at RMIT Europe in Barcelona, Spain.
There were many inspiring examples of student support.
Landmark College, which caters for students with a learning disability, encourages students to learn about their strengths and disability rights, and how to advocate for themselves in their daily lives.
They also encouraged student-led learning, positioning student’s needs as a priority.
“At Landmark College it isn’t up to the students to adapt to an educational style – the teachers adapt to the students’ needs instead,” said Lola.
Students take notes in a way that works for them, from handwriting to typing them into their phone. They can sit wherever they feel comfortable, on gym balls or on a cushion on the floor, rather than desks. Sensory items are also provided for students to play with to reduce anxiety.
A teacher at a Middle School in Paris showed Lola famous artworks she’d recreated in a tactile way so people who were vision impaired could still imagine what the art might look like through touch.
Lola visited the Student Access Service at Universitat Descartes (also in Paris), which helps people with disabilities to participate in as many university activities as possible alongside their peers, for example school camps, excursions and social events.
Lola believes the first step in promoting inclusivity in the classroom is to properly listen to students to find out how they can be most effectively supporting their learning.
“Allowing people to speak, to talk without any judgement was really important. As teachers, we can focus so much on what we need to cover in class that we sometimes bypass people’s opinions and what they’ve got to add to the discussion”.
“We should be allowing people with disabilities to take the floor more often than expected, or what’s considered the norm. I feel like that is a really big thing that we could take away from the Fellowship”.
Another key learning was the value of providing professional development opportunities for teachers to develop inclusive classrooms:
“We should be allowing people with disabilities to take the floor more often than expected, or what’s considered the norm. I feel like that is a really big thing that we could take away from the Fellowship”
“We need to educate our educators,” she says.
“It’s really important that if you have someone with disabilities in your classroom, you need to adjust your teaching style to fully support them”.
“Support staff such as scribes, interpreters and social workers can also make a big difference”.
On physical space and inclusivity, Lola observed how the class environment can influence learning:
“Something I really noticed was done really well overseas was the focus on the importance of the physical space. The classroom environment really affects learning, much greater than what it would a mainstream class”.
“For example, everything from lighting to sound, and the colours of the walls can effect learning”.
Lola is excited about applying her learnings at the Future Social Service Institute.
“Changing the learning environment is a big task, but it’s really worth it. I know we can do it.”
Watch this space for more news on innovation in our Cert IV classrooms!