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Raising awareness of MS

Ishbel MacKinnon

Open Door - May 2012 pages 10-11

Ishbel MacKinnon Ishbel MacKinnon

I live in Tobermory, a town of fewer than 1000 inhabitants on the beautiful Isle of Mull off the west coast of Scotland. I intended to stay for four or five years - 32 years later, I am still here. My husband, Iain, is a native of the island and, although retired, is kept very busy with his croft (smallholding), his garden, and fishing from his boat - and doing lots to support me as I continue to work, including having my meals ready for me every day.

I have been a teacher, both in East Kilbride and now in Tobermory High School, for 37 years, with breaks to have my two daughters, Rhoda and Kirsty. Initially I taught French and German, then later trained to provide learning support. This proved to be a particularly good change of direction once my MS began to affect my mobility.

My first symptoms (though undiagnosed at the time) were in 1985 when Rhoda was about 15 months old. I managed to cope with relapsing remitting MS for many years through courses of steroids. Then, about nine years ago, the steroids didn't work any longer and my mobility became affected - very gradually at first, then to the stage where I started using a stick. Now I use a rollator to maintain my balance and to have the confidence to move around. MS was eventually officially diagnosed about six years ago.

I still teach four days a week, taking a Friday off to give me a nice long weekend. Being a learning support teacher means that I now work mostly with individual pupils and I can work sitting next to them, so I no longer have to stand in front of a class. My employer and colleagues have been most helpful in implementing changes which have A young lady using a rollator helped me at work, such as installing ramps and railings and confining my work to the ground floor. However, our school is made up of lots of different buildings which have been added on over the years and still has some seemingly insurmountable access issues.

MS awareness at school

I realised some time ago that many of our 170 pupils probably didn't know why I walked around the school using a rollator or why they sometimes see me on a mobility scooter or in a wheelchair - and yet they also see me driving round town in my own car. So when I was asked to do a workshop at our annual Equal Futures Day, I felt it was an opportunity to raise awareness about MS and its implications for everyday life, both in and out of school. Equal Futures Day gives pupils the chance to learn about a very wide range of topics: asylum seekers, HIV awareness, education around the world, British sign language, Islamic stereotyping, the work of relief agencies, Travellers' Tales, raising awareness of Alzheimer's and lots more. So why not MS?

The next thought was what I should do for the pupils to allow them to learn something about MS in a way which would catch their attention. Pupils choose three workshops to take part in over the day, so I had to try to ensure they felt their choice had been worthwhile.

One child in a wheel chair and two following behind in a corridor

I decided to first of all give them some basic information, covering aspects such as types of MS, possible causes and symptoms. From a more practical point of view, we looked at what it actually means for me in my everyday life - affecting my mobility, memory and concentration and causing fatigue, particularly by the time I reach the end of each Thursday at school! I should say that I also tried to stress what I can still do - including still going to work and enjoying my job. I showed them a range of the aids I use regularly, from Toe-offs to help lift my feet off the ground to my super Motability car which means I can drive myself to school and also travel independently to the mainland. Thanks to my local MS Therapy Centre I was able to show pictures of the hyperbaric oxygen chamber I use regularly for my 'dive' and explain what happens there. I was very grateful for a wide range of books on all aspects of MS sent to me by the MS Trust and I also received posters to put up around the room from the MS Society.

We also tried to simulate for pupils what it is like for me to function in everyday life. They split into pairs and tried a variety of activities:

  • Fixing heavy weights from the Physical Education department round their ankles and trying to run up and down the stairs
  • Wearing scratched glasses (goggles kindly provided by the Science department) to simulate eyesight difficulties and trying to write a message and to read a book
  • Putting on very thick gloves and trying to pick up a paper clip or a staple or trying to write
  • Spinning their partner 20 times at speed and then getting them to walk, in order to experience balance problems
  • Walking using my rollator and at the same time trying to carry a supermarket basket and take things off the shelf
  • Fixing thick bubble wrap round their legs to try to give some idea of the altered sensation they might have with MS
  • Taking a wheelchair round the school independently or with help. Our school has very narrow corridors and a few nasty slopes and the pupils worked out that certain parts of the school are totally inaccessible to a person trying to move independently in a wheelchair, including the staffroom.

The pupils involved themselves wholeheartedly in the activities, asked very relevant questions and made lots of insightful comments, a selection of which you can read below. I am sure that they now have a better understanding of why I move so slowly round the school and have some idea of what personal and working life can be like for any disabled person. I would say that there is more understanding in our small school community now and that pupils are even more helpful than they were before.

Four kids in a class room, finding out what it's like to have MS

Pupil comments

  • Wearing the weight pads was really tiring. They made it really difficult to walk properly.
  • When you go upstairs with the weights on you feel like you are going to fall.
  • It was really difficult to do simple things like turn pages when I had the gloves on.
  • I found it quite hard to walk straight.
  • Shopping - impossible!
  • I found it hard to see and walk and pick up stuff.
  • In the wheelchair you can get stuck in places and a lot of the school is inaccessible. The corridors and doors are far too small. It was really hard to steer the wheelchair and to control it going down slopes.
  • The wheelchair was fun but I wouldn't like to be in one all the time.
  • We had to find somewhere Mrs. Mackinnon could not go because she has MS which affects her legs. She cannot go to the staffroom because either way there are stairs and she can't go to the meeting rooms so the teachers go to her room.

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