Imagine you’re going to a conference, what do you think of? A big hall full to the brim of important delegates in suits and ties? Business men and women with briefcases, all taking notes? Key speakers walking from room to room? That’s what a conference is, right? Right?
Instead, picture this. A group of young people from across the country. Rooms full of smiling people, all joined together in a common cause. Meeting and making friends with people. All ages, all abilities, all ready and willing to be heard.
That was the Making Participation Work Children and Young People’s Conference.
On the 12th of February, I was delighted to co-chair one of the first ever Children and Young People’s Conference specifically for those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). The whole day was an amazing experience for not only me, but everyone who took part. During the day, I had the opportunity to speak to many people, all with different participation experiences. Some had been fortunate enough to find a participation group that was accommodating to their needs. Some weren’t so lucky.
There were so many smiling faces, and I managed to talk to people about my own experiences. Many people knew little about what their rights were, how they could use social media to share their views, and how to get involved in participation. From what people told me throughout the course of the day, everyone had learnt at least something, or had discovered how they could get further involved in their local area. They found it informative yet laid back. Everyone had their bit of the conference that they particularly liked, from meeting new people to getting involved in the workshops.
Needless to say, the photobooth was also a favourite!
The conference was special not only for me, but for a lot of the other young people. So many young people with SEND these days prefer not to make a fuss and draw attention to themselves, hence when they cannot access something, some may choose to miss out on it instead of “making a scene”. For so many young people, having a conference such as this, which accommodated their needs, was a first.
But it shouldn’t be one.
We should use the conference to spread a message to children and young people, decision-makers, and those in power. We are here, we want to have a say, and we will not be silenced.
So, what do I hope and believe the impact of this conference was?
I hope that they went away with the knowledge that their needs should be considered and respected. That, despite what people believe, their needs should not be a barrier. In fact, there should be no barriers between young people and getting their voices heard.
Above all, I believe and hope that they went away knowing that they, just like everyone else, have a right to their voice. And if their voice isn’t being heard? That doesn’t mean they should stop using it. Do something about it.
This conference may have been one of the first, but I hope it won’t be the last.