Three disabled young men with first-hand experience of switching from special school to FE college have become researchers on the subject. They are no strangers to the obstacles of integration - much of their own experience has been painful and their work is confirming that they are not alone.
Julian Bellew, Marc Davies and Lee Richardson, all 20, have been carrying out interviews, on behalf of Barnardos, among able-bodied and disabled students in FE colleges in the south-west to find out more about each group's attitudes towards one another. Barnados hopes the research will provide valuable insight into how students mix when they move into the mainstream and how best they can be supported.
Two years ago all three left Princess Margaret special school, Taunton, for local FE colleges in the first stage of Barnardos' attempts to close the school and help its students move into ordinary schools and colleges. They found the change from classes of six or seven to classes of 30 hard to handle.
Julian, who suffers from progressive skeletal muscle wastage and who has a crooked spine, explains: "The biggest problem was that because you went to a special school you didn't get to know kids in your area. So when you go to college you don't know anyone at all. The experience was difficult for everyone."
Marc, whose severe hip deformity and back displacement makes walking difficult, felt left behind, quite literally, as everyone else ran from class to class. Then when he changed groups, his new classmates did not treat him well. "After a while they started making snide remarks behind my back. That got to me, " he recalls.
In each of three south-west colleges, the young researchers carried out a series of interviews, some with whole classes, some with groups of disabled students, some with groups of students with learning difficulties and others with individual members of staff. They also collected more than 450 questionnaires.
Designed and managed by Tony Newman, Barnardos' principal officer for research and development, the project's aim is to find out what it is like for disabled pupils to transfer into mainstream education - and what able-bodied children feel about it. The formal conclusions will be published in September, but Marc, Lee and Julian gave a public presentation about their research experience at a conference on "Listening to Children", held by Barnardos in London at the end of June.
"Barnardos has only recently become involved in child research, it's something we are still learning about," says Tony Newman. "We thought we would get better information if we used young people who had experience of special needs. It was a pragmatic reason."
At first the young interviewers found some of their questions did not work and they had to rethink how they were going to get some answers. But they were pleasantly surprised by the reaction of the able-bodied students who hadn't come into contact with disabled people.
"Some of them were very uneasy when answering questions, because they did not want to offend us," says Julian. "When they started asking questions back to us - 'What's it like being disabled? What's your experience?' - the interviews went a lot better because they were gaining from us."
According to Lee, who is wheelchair bound because of spina bifida, they found out quickly that communication is vital to inclusion. While disabled students found staff helpful, they hit an "invisible wall" with other students: unless they made the first move, they wouldn't get to know each other. "It taught me to look at this from both sides of the fence before making conclusions, " explains Lee. "I learned how hard it is for an able-bodied person to approach someone in a wheelchair."
Marc neatly sums up the big difference in attitudes. Able-bodied people, he says, believe the problems disabled people have to overcome are predominantly physical. But disabled people believe the biggest obstacles they face are mental ones - the prejudices and thoughtlessness of able-bodied people.
A typical example is the lack of forethought that goes into planning where classes take place - an issue which leaves Lee fizzing with anger: "The access was disgraceful. The door widths were ridiculous." The physical problem might be circumvented by moving the whole class to another room but at the risk of erecting a mental barrier if the able-bodied resent traipsing off to a new venue. Thus bad planning creates conflict and the blame falls on the disabled student.
When the interviewers challenged college staff about access they learned an early lesson in how management priorities differ. "One college had a list of what was going to be done by the end of the year. The other college's approach was, 'We'll do it when we have got the money and the time'," says Marc.
According to Priscilla Alderson, a senior research officer at the social science research unit at the University of London's Institute for Education, using young people to carry out social research among their peers is rare but can be surprisingly fruitful.
She has helped train a group of teenagers for another Barnardos research project, and noticed that they, like Marc, Lee and Julian, found certain research "techniques" drummed into them in training did not work -learning not to talk about themselves, for instance. The teenagers they interviewed opened up much more when conversations became interactive, something that adult researchers would find harder to do.
"We recognised that by involving more self-help researching, by people with common experiences, it can be quite a bit richer than if you go in knowing exactly what questions to ask," she says.
She believes that too many professionals, while trying to pursue a formal, objective line of questioning, ignore children's real attitudes or measure them on adult-centric models. This may explain why FE, though integrated in theory, has many colleges with highly segregated systems. The special needs students often board together, are taken to college in a special bus, attend their own classes and tend to stick together in their own group at breaktime.
"We have a rigid situation that adults have set up and special needs students are losing their great opportunity to mix in a network of young people, " she says.
Despite the obstacles they encountered in their research and their own experience, the three young interviewers remain firm believers in inclusion. Their findings, in that respect, will be encouraging for Barnardos, whose drive towards supporting inclusion is an attempt to respond to the demands of the growing disability rights movement.
During their research, Julian, Marc and Lee did find some disabled students who preferred the happier, more comfortable environment of special schools. But they feel there is a stronger case for making inclusion start earlier, at primary level rather than post-16.
"If you've grown up with someone who has a disability, there's no difference. If you've never met disabled people, it's a problem," says Julian.
Listening to Children: children, ethics and social research, by Dr Priscilla Anderson. Available for Pounds 8.50 from Barnado Publications. Tel: 01268 520224