There’s no denying it, it’s a tricky concept. How do we make sure that you offer everyone a fair chance? How do we define fair? Who is ‘everyone’ and what chance are we going to give them? One of the more recent PCHE workshops had us discussing these very questions, so here are my thoughts on what I’ve learned.

I used to think that to treat people fairly meant to disregard their race, class, gender, sexuality, age, disability and all those other things which make them unique. After all, equality is touted as being a central value of modern society, and my copy of Chambers Dictionary gives the following definition:

equality n the condition of being equal; sameness; evenness.

Looking back, though, that interpretation seems a trifle naive. No two people are identical, so treating them in the same way is always going to be a compromise; doing so blindly seems particularly insensitive.

For example, under that original assumption, the ideal way to interact with a person who is disabled is to treat them as though they were completely able-bodied. But think about that a bit more. I’m fortunate enough never to have been considered disabled, but I have sprained my ankle in the past, and even being so minimally-hobbled it would have seemed wrong for someone to be expecting me to carry heavy boxes up and down stairs. Treating someone in a wheelchair like that just seems downright offensive, if not just plain dim.

And yet neither can we jump to conclusions. Staying with the disability theme, take Evelyn Glennie, who has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. It would be easy to assume that music wouldn’t be an ideal career for her. Amazingly, she is a world-class percussionist and composer. If you’d like to see her in action, take a look at this talk in which she teaches her audience how to listen. It’s about half an hour long, so make yourself a nice cup of tea and I’ll wait for you to come back.

So fairness means more than just equality: we have to take people’s differences into account. However, we can’t jump to conclusions either. Not only do people differ in their natural capabilities, they also differ in how they relate to them. When you get right down to it, the only person who can tell you how I want to be treated is me.

But that still isn’t an end to it. If I lose my sight in an accident, I’m guessing that you probably won’t want me flying passenger aeroplanes (although check out this story about a pilot who was guided to safety after being blinded by a stroke in mid-air). Even making all reasonable effort to give everyone the same opportunities, there are still cases where we just can’t.

When it comes down to it, we have to be sensitive to the capabilities of everyone around us. If you had a team-member who was amazing at customer service but lacked a little in the time-management department, you’d make allowances. Dealing with disability, cultural differences or whatever is no difference.

One person who’s really helped me learn this is a colleague of mine. Her English is good; so good that it’s easy to forget that it’s not her native language. But every now and then I’ll use a word or idiomatic phrase that I take for granted and she’ll stop me and ask what on earth I’m talking about it. Thanks to her patience, I now try to be aware of those I’m talking to, whether I’m teaching or not, and whether they’ve understood me. If not, I try to rephrase what I’ve just said or explain myself without being patronising. I’m still learning, but I’m getting there.

Have you ever run into difficulty dealing with someone who’s different to you? How do you cope with the natural diversity of the people you meet every day? Leave a comment below to share your experience.

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