By the last week of Alert Level 4, SkillWise, a Christchurch community organisation providing TEC-funded training and education for around 80 people with an intellectual disability, was nearly ready to offer an online learning resource to other similar organisations around the country.

This swift response comes from an organisation that, since the Christchurch earthquakes, has focused on systemic change. At that time, when it was obvious life in Christchurch had changed forever, they seized the opportunity to do things differently, moving to an approach that helps their learners take on valued social roles as citizens within their communities.

Part of the new approach has been a strong investment in research. One recent participatory research programme has been in partnership with Canterbury University, evaluating an internshipbased employment training programme. A feature of that was a closed Facebook page for participants to share experiences, resources and information – so when the lockdown started, the tech savvy staff were able to scale up and create an online interactive learning resource using a number of platforms including their closed Facebook page and their own YouTube channel. Some material is live streamed. Resources include interactive sessions on cooking and baking, gardening, gentle exercise, a craft group and an art group. Learners are encouraged to post their own videos of the things they have been up to.

Victoria Ross, the Acting GM of SkillWise, sees these developments as a direct response to an education system that fails people with a disability: “We are really focussed on systemic change and pushing the boundaries of online learning because we often hear about learners who have been marginalised by the education system. It is a failure of the system rather than a failure of the individual. So we are constructing something inter-active, from the ground up and based on our core values. It’s learner-centric. It has to be.”

These days they find many of their learners have a smart phone, a tablet and/or a computer. Others might need some training on how to use the devices, but people with a disability are increasingly engaging with technology. “Face-to-face is still important and will remain a core feature of how we work – they are not mutually exclusive, they are complementary. Long term we will continue with the online option. We expect that this will mean that more people have access to the training that will better suit their learning needs and will create pathways to further learning and employment.

“We found with support from family members that some of learners who had no experience of Facebook or social media are now starting to really engage with this and posting videos of meals they have prepared, cakes they have baked, raking up autumn leaves and folding washing to help out in the family home.

“Within the wider organisation SkillWise provides community support and employment support to over 200 people. The employment team are currently supporting 34 people in work, all of whom have retained their jobs which is fantastic.”

SkillWise is in final stages of a research pilot in partnership with the University of Canterbury. Work Active is an internship-based employment training programme and is a concept SkillWise is looking at further developing post lockdown. This approach helps to bridge that gap between education and employment in a way that works for people with an intellectual disability. The approach is based around experiential learning whereby the workplace experiences (through the internship) helps to inform the classroom based work at the university. This includes taking actual experiences such as dealing with a ‘grumpy customer’ and role playing this with the wider group of learners.

Victoria says that they are working at integrating what they are doing on the platforms with what they offer face-to-face:

“We are still getting our head around some of this stuff. We have moved relatively quickly, learning as we go. We’ve surveyed staff to get feedback about what works well and why and what we can integrate moving forward.

“Now we are at Level 2 SkillWise is able to run some programmes out of their premises on Manchester St. This includes art, craft, model making, using technology, movies and much more! However, at this time numbers are significantly limited due to ensuring physical distancing and ensuring a robust contact tracing system.

“SkillWise is committed to the idea that having a range of skills gives people the power of personal choice, a sense of identity and the ability to form meaningful connections and create lasting relationships. Skillwise staff, from group coordinators to community facilitators, have the training, community awareness and resilience to assist in creating meaningful outcomes for people.

“We want to be a force of positive change in our society, helping to create a more accepting and inclusive community for all.”