The same but different
While the official line is that children with disabilities should be integrated with their neurotypical classmates, writes Linda Daly, the lack of a unified approach means many are left in no doubt that they are simply too different
MY nephew was seven the first time he experienced discrimination. His mother, my sister, had paid for him to attend Easter camp at school, the same way he had done the year before. However, a few weeks after my sister paid the money, his teacher, who ran the camp, said she didn't really have the facilities to cater for my nephew. A few months earlier my nephew had been diagnosed with high-functioning autism.
A quick call to the Equality Authority confirmed that the under Equal Status Act 2000 providers of goods and services are required to "accommodate the needs of people with disabilities through making reasonable changes in what they do and how they do it where, without these changes, it would be very difficult or impossible for people with disabilities to obtain those goods or services". This is unless the provider of the service will incur more than a nominal cost.
In my nephew's case, the teachers running the camp hadn't made any accommodation. They hadn't sought out the cost of an SNA; they hadn't asked my sister if she would be available to help out during the week. My nephew simply wasn't welcome. Take your money back, on your way.
Having a journalist for a sister can come in handy sometimes, so we penned a strongly worded letter outlining the situation, gave it to the principal of the school, who was livid and called a meeting with the teachers responsible. They apologised and offered my nephew a place at the camp. My sister, not wanting her little boy to go somewhere he wasn't welcome, thanked them, but refused the place and asked them never to let it happen again.
Thankfully, that was the one and only time in the last five years that my sister had to shed tears after feeling a sense of rejection for her son. My nephew has a sensory processing disorder and is prone to meltdowns when he is overwhelmed at school. His behaviour is challenging at times, but his teachers have worked to socialise him, and have always said he is a pleasant, funny child, who tries his best. He has been fully accepted at his primary schools thanks to two great principals and their staff.
But now it's time for my nephew to attend secondary school, and after his initial interview recently he received a place. My sister, delighted, trotted off to the school, paid the deposit and started to come to terms with the fact that her son was growing up so fast.
Then she got a call.
This time she met with the vice-principal who expressed his concerns at my nephew's suitability for the school. Did she really think he would be able for it? The primary school principal and resource teacher didn't, apparently. Would he be able for the class sizes (the same as his current class size)? And he pointed out that my nephew could end up getting "suspended for his behaviour".
This, despite Department of Education guidelines stating that "no student should be suspended or expelled from their educational programme due to behaviours resulting from the severity of their disability". This, despite the fact that the school's own policy says it welcomes students of all abilities.
It's been 17 years since the government followed international best practice in opting for an integration approach in Ireland's schools by making a commitment in the Education Act 1998 that children of all abilities would go to school alongside their counterparts.
This has led to amazing achievements, with children with Down Syndrome now graduating from second level, students with dyslexia receiving the supports they need so they can be the best they can be, and autism being recognised as a disability rather than misbehaviour.
Yet this integration policy is failing on many levels because it is up to the individual school boards to implement it, and often the management of a school gets to dictate the education our children will have.
My niece, who was diagnosed with dyspraxia, sensory processing disorder and more recently intellectual disability was once accused of "faking it" by her all-knowing principal.
Time and time again, parents of children with special needs refer to their interactions with schools as "fighting the fight". Good schools that recognise the integration policies of the Department of Education are fantastic. They are inclusive, welcoming and truly supportive in all aspects of our children's education. They have advocates who take a proactive approach to the teaching of children with special needs. They are on the side of their students and don't see them as a burden or nuisance.
But schools with managers at the helm who fail to grasp the meaning of integration policies, who look to school results as the ultimate goal, who fail to recognise that children with special needs have something worthwhile and good to offer their schools, are still omnipresent in this country. Often it's a complete lack of understanding and ignorance, but how long can we put up with that defence?
Seventeen years on from the Education Act, parents shouldn't have to find themselves in floods of tears because educators fail to see when they discriminate against their children. There needs to be a more unified approach to special needs education, and one that isn't determined by the area you're from or the principal in your school. Irish people need to recognise the difference between special needs and bad behaviour, they need to understand that integration in a majority of cases can be beneficial for all. If our children are seeing beyond the disability of their classmates, isn't it time the adults followed suit?