‘NOT DIS-ABLED, JUST DIFFERENTLY ABLED’

Anti-Bullying Training Coordinator Poppie Jones recaps the day that she met inspirational Anti-Bullying Campaigner, Thomas

11 September 2018

It was another day on the road and I had just arrived to deliver a Bespoke training at Lavington School in Wiltshire, completely unaware that I was about to have one of the most inspirational visits yet to date.

Excited and apprehensive (as I always am at the beginning of a training day) I waited until finally the last student had taken their seat. This is the part where I swallow down my nerves and put on a big smile as I start to welcome them to their day of training. ‘My name is Poppie, and I work at The Diana Award. I deliver anti-bullying training across the UK, and I am so absolutely delighted to be with you all today.’ Phew, I knew if I managed to get out those first lines, the rest would continue naturally. As always there are a few faces beaming back huge welcoming smiles, and little did I know that one of these would be a young gentleman named Thomas.

Anti-Bullying Ambassador Training in action.

Now, I meet hundreds of young people all up and down the UK while delivering training, but it’s not often I meet a young person as determined and inspirational as Thomas. Throughout the day I learnt that he has mild autism and even though there were many points throughout the training where he could have easily struggled, he pushed himself and quickly became one of the most engaged students in the room. Sharing personal stories and giving the most thought-provoking comments to the questions his peers were asking. It was through this day that as a trainer, normally used to delivering the training, I found myself being trained on a topic that I knew little about.

At lunch Thomas very kindly shared his own personal story with me, about the relentless bullying and discrimination he had faced because of his hidden disability. In that moment I wanted to ask Thomas what he had been doing about it, how could he put up with being treated that way? But he beat me to it by inviting me to join him outside, where he took me to a stand selling the most wondrous array of cakes, cookies and other delicious bakery goods. (now who can say no to cake?!)

“I have Autism, which is known as a hidden disability, it can make simple things extremely hard like making friends, but makes difficult things extremely easy. I have been bullied for my disability throughout my entire school life, being told that I am stupid or ‘retarded’ and I have even been avoided by others because they thought that autism is a contagious virus and tell me I was sick and needed to see a doctor; people have even said my mum must not of loved me enough to avoid the MMR vaccine that supposedly caused my autism. Other students make noises and sounds which make me upset and cause me physical harm, as well as pretending that I do not exist, that I am less than human.

It became a challenge for me just to go to school, an environment already difficult for me, but I soon that other people with hidden disabilities where were being bullied to a similar degree as well being called liars even by their teachers, of which I have had a personal experience with, it was then I decided it was time to stand up, not just for me but for other people with hidden disabilities and help other people understand their struggles. I want the world to stop looking down on people with any form of disability like they cannot do something, I say that it is time to thick of our community as differently abled, not disabled and I hope to spread this message nation-wide and thanks to the support of The Diana Award I might be able to do just that.”

Thomas, Autistic Anti-Bullying Ambassador for The Diana Award

Him and a small team had already rallied to raise awareness and put a stop to the discrimination happening in school. I learnt when buying my cookie (ok and a cake, but no judging me, the profits were all going to a good cause) that Thomas had given an assembly earlier that week on his disability, and was desperately trying to make everyone aware of the damaging effects bullying can have. They were selling the cakes to raise money for the National Autistic Society and spreading the awareness of Thomas’ campaign title ‘not dis-abled, just differently abled.’ In all his struggles and setbacks, Thomas was still determined to bravely stand up and speak out for others just like him.

As I walked back into the hall to give the afternoon session, I stopped and paused. I noticed that this was normally where again my nerves would set back in as the lunch bell would ring and the students would be walking back in to take a seat; however, seeing the bravery and determination of Thomas had inspired me. The impact that he is having in Lavington School is the reason why we train our incredible Anti-Bullying Ambassadors, to work towards spaces and communities where were all treated equally. So, Thomas – well done for being the best upstander and positive role model in your school, your ability astounds me and I know that you are going to continue inspiring so many others.

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