Maresa MacKeith: “Friendship is fundamental to our humanity; friendship is the soil from which inclusion grows.”
Maresa is an Inclusion Now editorial board member and Quite Riot group member
We develop as people through our relationships with each other. Disabled young people are no different. Our need for friends surpasses many of our additional needs, which too often are the only thing noticed about us. Inclusion, for me, is about relationships which we develop by being in the midst of diversity. Disabled young people have to be present with others, as well as having the right support.
For most schools, friendship is not seen as a priority. There is no time for this even though most adults will look back at their childhood and recognise the importance of early friendships to their lives.
How do young people get to be with each other to be able to make friends?
They need to be able to be in the same space, they need to be able to communicate with each other, they need to be able to move around in that space, sometimes as part of their communication. Having a laugh with each other is often the glue to a bond. All this needs time and sometimes help. Some Disabled young people need help with all of these things.
My experience was that I was not in the same space.
I was at a special school where we all needed help, so it was hard to reach each other. At the special school I had no communication system and couldn’t move around without help, so the loneliness within a crowd felt terrible.
When I started to go, one day a week, to a mainstream primary school, one of the young people took me in my wheelchair into the playground on my first day. He wanted to help me meet the other young people. Two others decided they wanted to help me at lunchtime, and they started to learn my communication system. We started to connect but I was only there one day a week, so it was hard but still a lot better than before.
When I eventually got to a school (in year 9) where friendship was seen as important, life started to change. A little time was given for the young people to learn my communication system and time was given to forming a ‘circle of friends’. One person went out of her way to connect with me and draw me into her world. Then at Further Education College, somebody else sought me out and the three of us remain friends to this day 20 years later.
I love working with young people. They love talking about friendship. I tell them my story of feeling alone, I ask them what they feel they can give as a friend and I ask them what they want from a friend. They all respond in the same way about trust, connection and having fun. Here are some responses from a workshop I did in September 2022 with year 6, (aged 10-11):
‘..a friend is someone who understands you, makes you laugh and someone you can trust.’
‘..a friend is someone who cares for you and makes sure you are not alone.’
‘..you can offer a friend your trust, your respect and your kindness. You can also take time to learn how to communicate with a friend that finds it hard to communicate.’
It doesn’t seem to matter what age the young people are, they can have their successes and struggles. Even the teachers have talked about their own struggles with friendship.
I also ask them about their dreams for themselves and the world. Again, the same desire for connection comes across:
‘..My dream for the world is for everyone to treat others with kindness and also stop littering.’
‘..My dream for the world is for everyone to feel safe and to live happily with food, water, shelter and love.’
‘..I hope that in the future, no-one who is different gets punished or treated differently.’
Young people know what is important and they seem to enjoy what I do with them. The schools I have worked in have welcomed me and have asked me to come back.
We need to take the lead from young people. Isolation is the biggest disabling feature in all our lives. We are born wanting to connect.
Maresa MacKeith books
- ‘Taking the Time’ (2011) includes essays about my thoughts on relationships, feeling excluded in some schools and my early poetry.
- ‘I Can Still See the Sky’ (2019) is a collection of poems I wrote after moving into my own home.
- ‘Quiet Riot Collected. Facilitated Fables. Write that’s how we fight.’ (2016). Quiet Riot, a group I am part of, published an anthology of all our writing.
Contact Maresa MacKeith for purchase information.