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Student sees a different side to psychology in community learning program

Photo of: Kathleen HughesKathleen Hughes was on the streetcar one day chaperoning the employees of New College’s Coffee Shed, all of whom are developmentally disabled. One of the employees — a young man — noticed she didn’t have the percentage of battery icon showing on her iPhone. Hughes explained that she didn’t know how to find the setting to change it. Within seconds, he was showing her how to do it. As she exclaimed her appreciation, she noticed that another passenger, sitting behind them, had a huge grin on his face.

“You could see that he was really happy to see that this young man, who visibly had a disability, was able to teach me something,” Hughes says.

Hughes, a fourth-year psychology major, was paired with Frontier College and Common Ground Cooperative in New College’s community-engaged learning seminar. The former is a non-profit literacy organization, and the latter runs programs to get people with disabilities working in places such as the Coffee Shed. New College places fourth-year students with organizations in Toronto, providing them with opportunities to engage in community service or social advocacy, and encourages them to challenge themselves to think critically about social justice issues. They then get together once a week to discuss their experiences with the rest of the class and program coordinator, Linzi Manicom.

“I learned a lot about social justice issues that I was putting into practice in my everyday life,” says Hughes. “I now feel like I’ve become a part of a really great community.”

Besides finding a welcome home at Frontier College and the Coffee Shed as well as work she enjoys doing, Hughes found that her academic knowledge was challenged.

“Psychology really emphasizes diagnoses and ideology, but Frontier College and Common Ground don’t disclose people’s diagnoses, so that’s not a part of the screening process,” she says. “They never ask what someone’s disability is, they just assess the needs of the learner. It drew my attention to the problems with emphasizing diagnoses. Of course it can be useful, but it can also inhibit seeing a person for who they really are. I was able to see the principles of learning and of disability that I’ve learned about academically, but I was also forced to look back on what the implications of that learning are.”

Hughes has been working with people with disabilities since she was much younger, as a camp counsellor and at a school. But at Frontier College she was helping adults with disabilities learn how to read — a much different experience.

“A lot of teaching resources are adapted from what is used for children,” she says. “We have to take out anything that is patronizing or childlike, any illustrations and things like that, and create new resources that are appropriate for the adults. Kids you can treat like kids, but there is a delicate balance between explaining things in a way that’s accessible and helpful for those individuals and respecting the abilities that they do have.”

Hughes will continue to work with Frontier College this summer, thankful to have had the opportunity to get involved with them this year.

“I learned a lot about myself, my own biases and assumptions and how those influence the way that I behave and the choices that I make,” she says. “The question of why I chose this placement was a huge subject of reflection, which was really interesting to realize what it was about me and why I am drawn to helping people.”