Different on the outside, same on the inside

Students at Lisarow Public School have added to their understanding of inclusion after hearing from community advocate Maree Jenner. Sven Wright reports.

A woman in a classroom standing in front of students sitting on the floor. A woman in a classroom standing in front of students sitting on the floor.
Image: Maree Jenner talks to Lisarow Public School students about the importance of inclusion.

Maree Jenner has been a nurse, worked with a United Nations war crimes tribunal and advocated for people with disability at a national level – and now she is motivating students to be the change-makers of tomorrow.

Ms Jenner is a person with short stature or dwarfism who has been encouraging deeper conversations with primary students with her ‘Different on the Outside Same on the Inside’ school inclusion workshops.

She has worked with a number of Central Coast schools, most recently with Years 5 and 6 at Lisarow Public School, speaking to the students and their teachers about removing social barriers and encouraging inclusion for people with disability.

Her presentation recounts her experiences from childhood, encourages students to imagine how it feels not to be included, and gives examples of how difference can be embraced, and how new technologies are making this easier – for example, speech-to-text helping people with hearing impairment.

Shortly after returning as a volunteer support person for the Australian team at the World Dwarf Games in Germany, Ms Jenner returned to her work with schools through the not-for-profit organisation Social Futures, drawing on her personal experience. Social Futures is an NDIS Partner in the Community.

“I didn’t want to go to school because I was made fun of and mocked,” she said.

“So, when I saw they (Social Futures) were doing this and they asked me if I’d be interested, I said ‘Yes please!’”

Ms Jenner’s personal approach resonates with students.

“I feel them walking in my shoes. I actually see that when I talk about my lived experience at school as a child; that’s the quietest time because they are listening, and the emotion they show on their faces and the understanding and the empathy – it tells me it’s worth it.”

Lisarow Public School Principal Emma Pezet saw the value of what Ms Jenner could offer as soon as a community member suggested she visit.

“We felt students could learn from someone who has a fulfilling life living with disability, and could teach students that everybody can achieve a variety of things,” Ms Pezet said.

The message came across loud and clear to school captains Courtney and Jackson.

“I learnt that we are all the same, no matter what,” Courtney said.

Jackson agreed: “It doesn’t matter how big or how small you are, we are all the same.”

Ms Jenner has found her school visits particularly rewarding.

“Start with the young ones,” she said. “That’s where you can make a difference.”

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