When you think of disabilities, impairments and disorders, what do you think of? Now, what if we add in the term ‘complex needs’? If you are like most people, you are thinking about differences, and what people “can’t do” or might struggle with.
Giftedness in the Context of Complex Needs
Complex needs and giftedness; to some this might seem an oxymoron but in truth this is not the case. Think of Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking, and paraolympians, and you start to get a sense of where this is going. Of course, giftedness is not synonymous with eminence, fortune, glory or even achievement as the aforementioned examples may suggest. There are no guarantees of such outcomes for any gifted learner, or for that matter, necessarily any desire for them. The point here is that giftedness is a part of the complex range of ways of being that some people experience, and as such must be considered in light of rights and needs within both education and health sectors.
As Mitchell (2012, p.20) states, those with complex needs “are diverse, with varying abilities, interests, aspirations, and needs, which change over time as they mature and gain more experience” and that the “focus of planning programmes for them is on what they are capable of performing, whilst at the same time paying due regard to the challenges their behaviours create. In other words, the underlying philosophy driving the provisions of such individuals is a strengths-based model, rather than a deficit model”.
While “performing” is not a word I would choose as a way of describing an individual’s expressed abilities and qualities, as I believe this is context and motivationally dependent, I do hold firmly to the belief that amongst an individual’s complex needs, there is a need to identify and respond to giftedness when this is also a part of who they are. Why? Because If this is not understood, accepted and included in practice, if we are not seeing people holistically, those of us in supporting roles are not equipped to effectively utilise strengths-based practice or promote wellbeing in a broader sense. The result is that if we neglect to look, recognise and respond, we fail our moral, ethical and legal obligations, not only in being inclusive and responsive, but also in relation to core human rights.
The phrase inspiration porn hadn’t been coined then, but that’s what I struggled with: the fact that whatever I did had to mean something more, that I wasn’t allowed to just be another kid playing a sport that no one cared about in a failing skating rink that would become a bridal mall in a few short years. I just wanted to be normal - Hartman (2019)
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which was ratified by New Zealand in 2008, states that “The development by persons with disabilities of their personality, talents and creativity, as well as their mental and physical abilities, to their fullest potential” is a right (United Nations, Article 24, 1b). This identifies the legal obligation for characteristics of giftedness to be identified within the context of formal education, beyond that of the National Administration Guidelines (1ciii) for education. Between these two legislations providers are given the clear message that the right provisions are to be put in place to ensure that all learners:
- work at a level which provides new learning;
- affords opportunities to develop at their preferred rate;
- understand their unique abilities and qualities, and how this ties into their identity;
- opportunities to link in with others who are like-minded who have a shared sense of identity, qualities, abilities and/or interests.
Defining Complex Needs
As identified in the Mental Health Commission’s report on services under challenge (as cited in Kidd & Lampshire, 2010, p.5), the “definition of “high and complex needs” has not, as yet, been clarified in the New Zealand context”. What according to Mitchell (2012, p. 7), does seem apparent however, is that a “useful working definition involves consideration of two intersecting factors: breadth (multiple needs that are interrelated) and depth (profound, severe or intense needs) in relation to challenges arising through a combination of physical, neurological, psychological and/or socio-environmental diversity. I was only able to locate only one definition for New Zealand, however this, along with a range and international examples are depicted below. The intersection of these is of paramount interest.
Created with images by Dylan Thomas / Photography - "Morocco, Essaouira, Disabled Street Artist" • Joseph Gonzalez - untitled image • Audi Nissen - "Womens wheelchair basketball" • Brad Neathery - "Heart on Paper" • Anna Kolosyuk - untitled image