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Meeting the Politicians

My name is Nadia Clarke, I am 20 years old, and I am disabled and I am also profoundly Deaf. Because of my disabilities I communicate using both a computer called a DynaVox, and British Sign Language. I have a very strong view about the rights of disabled people like myself and have done a lot of campaigning about our entitlement to equal rights over the years. 

I believe that disabled people have the right to have a voice as much as non-disabled people and I want to eliminate all the barriers that disabled people face each and every day of their lives. I am hoping to go to University in the next few years, as I want to study Disability or Special Educational Need and Inclusion because my ambition is to advise the Government on Disability issues as a young Disabled woman in the future.

Because of my ambition I decided to contact the Government to see if I could organise some work experience for myself in this field. After months of planning I finally had a 2 day visit planned for the end of May this year. 

This is my experience:

On Tuesday 22nd May 2012 I excitedly set off to London, where I would spend the next two days with Sharon Hodgson, MP Shadow Minister of Children and Families as part of my work experience. I arrived in London and straight away was escorted to the House of Commons, a big traditional building in the heart of London. I was taken to watch a meeting taking place between Sharon Hodgson and Jean Gross. They were discussing Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), which I found extremely interesting and informative.

When the meeting came to an end, I was greeted by Sharon Hodgson in person, and we went for lunch inside the House of Commons. I had a chicken sandwich, which was delicious, and complemented the great day I was already having. After lunch, Sharon took me to the Houses of Parliament, which was truly awesome! The old, authentic building was beautiful, and I felt privileged to see it. Sharon then took me outside where we sat near a river in the sun, ready for me to interview her. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to be holding the interview.

The questions and answers were as follows:

Nadia: Hi, how are you?
Sharon: Hi Nadia, I am very well, it’s a beautiful day and we are sat on the Terrace at the House of Commons. Perfect!

Nadia: How long have you worked as Shadow Minister of Children and Families?
Sharon: It’s coming up to two years.
Nadia: What do you like about your job?
Sharon: Oh gosh, I think for me it’s the best job in the whole of Parliament and within the Government portfolios that you can have. My job covers Early Years, Children with Special Educational Needs, Sure Start, Child poverty, Young carers, school food and children’s rights. So for me it’s one of the most interesting and most important areas of Government policy.

Nadia: Interesting! Why do you choose to work under the Labour Government?
Sharon: I couldn’t imagine being a Politician for any other party, Labour is the party I feel the most affinity with, Labour values are my values, the values of fairness, equality, social justice and the fact that everybody should be able to achieve their full potential and be supported. The fact that where and which family you were born into should not determine your life, outcomes and chances that everyone should have, and have an equal chance and to go on and achieve and to live full and fulfilling lives for me the best party for this is the Labour party.
Nadia: This is really fantastic.
Sharon: Thank you.

Nadia - I would like to be an advisor on behalf of the Labour party on Disability and Communication Issues.
Sharon: Fantastic, that would be great, you would be a great Advisor.
Nadia: Do you think in the future you can see me as an Advisor, if so when can I start?
{Sharon, Joel and Cheryl – laugh at Nadia’s sense of humour!}
Sharon: Yes I certainly can see you as an Advisor, I mean, you’re so good at doing that role anyway. When you gave evidence to the SEN hearing on Labour party policy, I mean you came along and gave your advice, that’s what an Advisor does, you’re always going to become more knowledgeable in the future especially after you have been to America and you have found out more about AAC devices, I mean you are going to become more and more knowledgeable and Politician’s, such as myself, are always looking to experts in that field, such as yourself. I mean you can really talk knowledgeably from your experience around the issues that effect, children and adults with disabilities. And, I think the second part of the question asked, how can you get a job? Well you’ve got to apply for one, but with your skills everybody will be keen to have you onboard.
Nadia: I want to help create new policies for Disabled people and those with communication impairments.
Sharon: Definitely, I mean the work that you’re doing already, I mean to bring it to the attention of the Politicians’, such as myself and you’re seeing Sarah Teather tomorrow, becoming a Campaigner is the key part of that, because I can’t imagine the barriers you have to face in your day to day life, you need to campaign to let people like us know and that’s what you’re doing, you’re here and you’re doing it very well.

Nadia: What are your views about withdrawal of support staff for Deaf students in the exam room?
Sharon: I just think that it can’t be allowed to become the case because, if we really believe that all children can achieve their full potential how can you withdraw support, that all it does is to level the ‘playing field’ and to give children with disabilities in this case Deaf children a ‘level playing field’ is a chance to be able to compete and achieve on the same level of non-disabled children, no I think that’s definitely an area of policy that we need to look at strongly.

Nadia: Would you like to come and take part in 1 Voice this September? It is a charity supporting children and young people who use communication aids?
Sharon: I think we looked at dates for that and I don’t think that I am available erm so I would have done, so if you can do that again in the future I would definitely do it I will try and get the date in my diary early and protect it, but I think we have looked at the date for this year, but absolutely yes.
Nadia: Don’t worry.
Sharon smiles
Nadia: I have been going for 13 years because my Mum set it up. It has made a big difference to my life.
Sharon: Oh wow so your Mum set it up! Very good, you must be very proud of your Mum?
Nadia: She is! I will tell my Mum.

Nadia: I will be famous one day and you will have wished that I was part of your team.
{Sharon, Joel and Cheryl laugh, at Nadia’s humour}
Sharon: I think you are a part of my team already, and I’m sure you will be famous one day, I think your already famous now, I do hope that you will advise me now even in a voluntary capacity and hopefully one day in the future you might make it your job.
Nadia: Do you like working with Joel and is he any good?
{Sharon and Joel – laugh out loud}
Sharon: Joel is fantastic, he is an intelligent, capable young man who is an absolute joy to have around, he’s very like you Nadia, he’s happy to be around and full of joy and lifts your spirits, very similar to you Nadia. But, trouble (Sharon signs ‘trouble’ to Nadia) I have to keep an eye on him!

Nadia: Is there anything you would like now to ask me?
Sharon: Oh Gosh! So what would your dream job be?
Nadia: My dream is to work, I want to be a Government Advisor and change policy around Disability Rights and Education.
Sharon: Fantastic! I think that’s a real amazing aspiration for a 20 year old to have. I strongly believe that young people should have dreams and set out each day to do something to take you closer to fulfilling that dream and to reach that goal and some of the young people today do not have that, they think that what chances am I going to have and they don’t even have the aspiration and I think what is amazing about what your doing is that you not only have got the aspiration and the dream, you are doing something chasing it and here you are today your second time in Parliament, you even gave evidence to the SEN review, your here shadowing me, tomorrow you will be with Sarah Teather, so already you are doing so much to try and make that dream a reality and I know you will do it.
Nadia: First, I want to go to University, but I don’t know what’s happening because I was really hard exam, English and barrier.
Sharon: So you took an exam in English, and it was really quite difficult, I think I was talking to Cheryl about that before, but I think it is only a small hurdle.
Nadia: Thank you.
Sharon: No, thank you.

After I had finished interviewing Sharon Hodgson, I went to look inside the Houses of Parliament. I kept stopping and driving my wheelchair really slowly because it was so awesome inside and I just kept thinking wow!! We then moved on to watch the Deputy Prime Minister questions I thought it was brilliant. I left early and shadowed Sharon Hodgson to a meeting about learning disability. I loved meeting those involved as I enjoy meeting new people. 

Later in the day I had an escorted tour around the Speaker’s house. This was amazing because I got to see the bedroom and living room in the Houses of Parliament where Kings and Queens of our history would have stayed. Unfortunately I was unable to meet Mr Speaker in person due to him having urgent business to attend to. Instead I meet Mr Speaker’s Personal Assistant, who organises Mr Speaker’s day and co-ordinates his business in the Houses of Parliament.

I went on to the House of Commons because it was break time there so I was able to go in and meet up with Sharon Hodgson and her boss Stephen Twigg MP, who is the Shadow Education Secretary. We discussed the day and talked about AAC and the possible withdrawal of support for AAC users in examinations. I especially spoke about Mainstream Schools, and Special Schools, and children with disabilities and the barriers they can face in education. I could see that Stephen Twigg was impressed with my knowledge and expertise.

The day concluded on the terraces of Parliament. As the sun set over the Thames, a small group of us sat and reflected over the day’s events. Sharon Hodgson bought drinks and asked if I would like to participate in future policy reviews. I didn’t need to be asked twice, I was ecstatic! Sharon’s genuine warmth was heart-felt and I could see she really wanted to learn about all my concerns and ideas around AAC. I know that my future in politics is going to happen, and probably sooner rather than later, as I now know that I don’t need a degree as I have the life experience to become a leader in disabilities which no degree can give me.

On Wednesday 23 May I was so elated over the previous day’s events, that it somehow over- shadowed what was going to happen that day. Never the less, I was ready and waiting for a car from Sarah Teather MP’s office to collect me and take me to Alfred Salter Primary school. It was today that I was to shadow the MP for Children and Families around a SEN primary school, to observe how visits and discussions with regard to the school and its future works. Sarah Teather was unavoidably detained in another meeting which presented me with a chance to meet with the school Governors, staff and the children. 

I had an hour of talking and exchanging views with regards to disabilities, social welfare and most importantly the great news that a year 3 student was about to discover the world of AAC. Never before had the school experienced a student with an AAC before, and they showed so much interest in how I used my device that I was really pleased to have been a positive role model for this pupil and the school. The Head teacher went on to invite me to continue to be a role model for the Y3 student in the new term, which I accepted without hesitation.

Sarah Teather then arrived, there was a short introduction to everyone present, and she was then whisked away to look around the school as her time is so precious. She did acknowledge me as her work experience, but due to the size of the classrooms and accessibility of the corridors, it was hard to share the same room and listen to her conversations. Never the less, my own personal experience was unforgettable. Memories of which I will take away with me and cherish forever.

After a brief meeting, Sarah Teather’s Personal assistant asked if I could have the interview, which I had already prepared, in the back of a taxi as she had other meetings to attend. My own Personal Assistant, Cheryl, advised that this would not be possible due to accessibility, and the need for my interpreter to be present. Basically there was a lack of room in a London black cab.

Back at the Department of Education I was rapidly sped along to the next meeting, not knowing what to expect. This meeting was arranged by David Chater, Sarah’s co-ordinator. During the meeting I sat at the side of a boardroom table, as the panel discussed the issues around Child poverty, which was due for debate in the House of Commons in the next coming weeks. 

I was in awe of the conversation. It was highly exciting watching an assistant advise Sarah on an issue, then another objecting, and stating other issues that should be raised. Even though I did feel it was ‘above my station’ and most of the conversation went over my head, the sheer involvement was overwhelming.

When the meeting came to a close I asked Sarah if I could interview her, and she obliged as she had some flexibility that day. 

The interview questions and answers are as follows:

Nadia: Hi
Sarah: Hello
Nadia: How are you?
Sarah: I am good thank you it’s been a busy morning hasn’t it?

Nadia: How long have you worked as the Minister of children and families?
Sarah: Erm, for just over two years. We had the General Election in May 2010, and the Coalition Government was formed a week later, and I was appointed on the Friday, so just over two years now.
Nadia: What do you do you like about your job?
Sarah: I like lots of things about my job, but most of all I get an opportunity to make a difference, I’ve been a MP for quite a long time since September 2003, so nearly nine years. You can do a lot as a ‘back bench’ MP and lots in opposition but if you’re in Government you can actually get to make decisions and I particularly like the work around SEN and disability and we’re trying to really change the system at the moment.

Nadia: Why did you choose to work under the Conservative Government?
Sarah: Well, it’s not a Conservative Government, it’s a Coalition Government, and just after the election day at the start of May 2010, no party won the overall majority, so the Conservatives could not have governed on their own, Labour could not have governed on their own, and we talked to both Labour and the Conservatives and the only way actually to form a government was with the Conservatives, there weren’t enough MPs if we joined with Labour to make a Government, but the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats negotiated to have a Coalition agreement that included the best of our manifesto and the best of their manifesto, so that was the best way in which we were able to get the things we wanted to do and when we were on opposition in active Government.

Nadia: In the future what do you plan to do to support Disability Rights for Children and Young People?
Sarah: Well, we are rolling out a big reform at the moment for Special Education Needs and Disabilities, and what we are trying to do is to make the Education system work that much better and make sure children get the support they need early enough to make sure they can progress and develop. We know that lots of children don’t get access to Speech and Language Therapy for example when they need it. They struggle to get the right wheelchair as they struggle to get access to the schools they want to go to and so we are trying to improve the system so that all children get much better care at an early stage and so that they get a better chance to for fill their potential really and be the best they can be.

Nadia: Do you think that creating policies for Disabled young people you should have a Disabled advisor like me, helping inform you?
Sarah: Well, we involve lots of Disabled young people who help in developing our policies, I don’t have a disabled advisor as such, but the council for Disabled people have an Ambassadors scheme, and they’ve consulted heavily on the proposals that we are making and I’ve got to meet the young Ambassadors on different occasions to check through what they think and make sure we are doing everything in the right way, and I think the important thing is that we involve a range of children with Disabilities and SEN with different needs and we consult as many different people as possible. Just having one advisor, I am not sure it’s quite enough, which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t recommend your help.

Nadia: How can you support families to feel more positive about their lives?
Sarah: Well, some of it is making sure they get the help they need, you know, if you’ve been fighting the system to get your child into the right high school or a wheelchair, or erm, to get a bit of extra help for your child in school or for a break, then it’s no wonder you feel very negative and I think for a lot of families they’ve basically fought a war with Councils and the Health Service for a really long time to get what they want and it takes its toll on families.
Nadia: Thank you.
Sarah: Thank you.

The morning concluded with a late lunch, after which I was exhausted, so we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

I gained so much knowledge and gained a wealth of experience over those two days, a work experience that will never be forgotten, and of which I will take with me on my way as I build a career around Leadership and AAC.


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Meeting the Politicians © Nadia Clarke 2012.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.