Today, there was a story on the news about children with disabilities and whether they should go to a school specifically for children with disabilities or whether they should be integrated into a class in mainstream school. A mother of a 16-year-old girl with Cerebral Palsy was interviewed and then the programme’s presenter voiced their opinion.
The presenter used the word “conventional” to describe a child without a disability versus one with one, and I got the feeling that she was trying not to use the word “normal”.
My mind went back to my own experience of education as a person with multiple disabilities, and the decisions my parents had to make when first looking for the best place for me to go to school.
It was determined early on that I had very complex disabilities but that my intelligence was average or even above average. I started off at Chailey Heritage School in Sussex and I do still have some memories of my time there- being put on the floor as a baby in an attempt to strengthen my muscles as I could not hold my head up until I was 2. Or time in the therapy pool.
My parents were happy with the school because there were a mix of education and treatments available and the school was a very good place to learn in the area. From what I know, it still is today.
When we moved to Oxfordshire when I was 5, I went to mainstream school with full-time support. I remember being taught to read and working on a book about Pippa, the black and white cat we had at the time. I remember physio.
From then on, my education was with support workers within classes including at university.
I didn’t especially like school and was bullied. I loved to learn and I think that’s what kept me there. I passed all my exams and went on to university.
I know that I was lucky that the doctors who assessed me saw my potential to be able to go to a mainstream school. I won’t lie, there were extremely difficult times when I would wonder if I was in the right place. Neither teachers’, not students, attitudes were the best sometimes and I felt sad. There were days when I did not want to go to school and days when I couldn’t due to being hospitalised for yet another headache or shunt-related problem.
Often, a day at school would leave me so exhausted I had no time for after-school clubs, although they were suggested as a way to integrate more. I was satisfied at what I had learnt that day though, but what played on my mind were always my relationships with classmates, some of whom became friends and also why many teachers were so dismissive of me and did not totally understand my needs.
That takes me back to the news this morning. The question was asked as to whether children with disabilities should all be integrated into mainstream school and whether “special” schools should close.
The conclusion they came to was that the schools were better equipped to deal with children and young adults with disabilities because the classes were small- about 6 students- and a doctor or physio or speech therapist could easily be in the class and not disrupt it.
My classes were 20-30 pupils and I felt like I stood out, yet was invisible at the same time. OK, what do I mean by this? I mean that people knew I had CP and a visual impairment but very few knew about my hydrocephalus as you can’t see it. The mere fact that they knew I had disabilities changed their attitude towards me and made them see me as “different,” “slow to learn” “clumsy” “awkward” “incapable” and any other adjective they wanted to use.
But the thing is, they were wrong about me.
Yes, I had teacher(s) who would kind of “give up” on trying to explain things, or who flat-out refused to help me on the rare days when the support worker was off sick and there was no replacement. I also had some amazing teachers who saw me for me and would sit and help me when they had a moment and really saw me struggle, either with some part of the work or with fatigue or headaches.
Some understood the reason my mum had to collect me from school early as my headache was so bad and I felt so weak and exhausted I could not concentrate in class. Others questioned my choice to take all my GCSEs and A’levels and whether the school I was at was the “right” one or if “special school” would be better.
The choice to send me to mainstream school was so I could meet different types of people and therefore become more confident. I was incredibly shy, and every comment and taunt would have me crying or wishing I could disappear.
I felt excluded when a teacher would say “Katherine, there’s no one left for you to work in a pair, come and work with me.” Worse was when we’d do an activity, like reading, and I’d realise that the book was too heavy/cumbersome or the print was too small and my forarms would give way in an effort to try and hold the book, or when the class would knit or paint and the activities were not adapted to me.
Sometimes, teachers would say it was too much hassle to enlarge a worksheet to large print, or read something out or give me extra time to do something. I think that the mainstream schools that I went to were not prepared to receive a person with disabilities and they certainly did not have the knowledge of Cerebral Palsy, or hydrocephalus or severe visual impairment, much less a combination of the three which is what I live with.
I’m not sure if it would have made a difference had they done, as it takes a special kind of teacher to really help a person with disabilities. The support workers were essential to me though and helped me a lot so for that, I am grateful.
Do I see myself as having achieved what I have if I had gone to a school specifically for the disabled? Or would I have stayed at Chailey had we not moved from Sussex? I don’t know, maybe. Maybe I would have got more appropriate support rather than feeling like it was always a struggle against what the school wanted to provide and feeling like something was missing like my needs were never accurately catered for. I felt I was struggling more than I needed to.
Do I think “special” schools need to close? That’s a hard one. I really do not like the feeling of segregation but also feel like attitudes towards people with disabilities in mainstream schools are far from good enough and who knows when that will change.
I also agree with the conclusions from the news today. In my experience, the schools I went to were all to reluctant to make adaptations and change their attitudes.
Would I have benefitted from a specialist school? In terms of my needs being better met, I think so. As the curriculum for all schools is followed and modified, I think it would have suited my needs better. And of course, the more qualified support workers would have been a bonus because they woukd have understood my needs better than those in mainstream school and the adaptations would have been there. I think they would have been more accommodating and stil seen my potential.
As many of my problems with mainstream school were making friends and the social aspect, as well as needs provision, I think they could have found ways for me to be a happier student overall. Having the best provision is what counts and when I feel happy with a situation, that is good. I’m pretty confident now and think that the specialost school would have helped me gain confidence earlier in a way that was more focused on my needs and me as a person.
Would I be fluent in Spanish had I gone to a specialist school? Possibly, as I always had the drive to learn and know that foreign languages are taught. I tend to respond better to people who are sensitive to my needs, trained to support my specific needs and take me as I am and sadly I did not feel that was the case with mainstream school.
Am I proud of my achievements at mainstream school? Yes. Despite it all, I met different people and I had to find my own ways to be stronger. It has played some part in who I am today.