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Opinion: 'Why I invited a documentary film crew into my college for young people with disabilities'

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The principal of National Star College explains why she allowed BBC camera crews unprecedented access to her college for young people with disabilities

National Star College students will feature in The Unbreakables: Life and Love on Disability Campus, one of the flagship series in BBC Three’s “Defying the Label” season focusing on what life in the UK is like for young people with disabilities.

I’m sure many people will be asking why would any principal in their right mind allow a documentary film crew unprecedented access to their college and allow them to follow the rollercoaster lives of teenagers? To allow them to witness the emotional highs and lows of life that is part and parcel of life away from home for the first time?

The answer is simple – because it was the right thing to do.

Many of our students have been defined previously entirely by their disability. They are the “boy at school with the wheelchair” or the young woman who “talks strangely”.

This series is enabling them to show the world that they have exactly the same wishes, desires, wants and needs as their peers without disabilities. It is about people with disabilities directly challenging some of the preconceptions they face.

Young people with disabilities say they are often patronised, or talked down to, or at times simply ignored whilst a conversation happens around them.

Or that they are perceived as “benefits scroungers” and viewed as playing the system and getting more than they deserve. As one of our former students says: “I didn’t ask to be born with a disability. If you think have cerebral palsy is an easy way to get benefits and live the high life then I will gladly swap.”

People with disabilities also have to contend with the “inspiration” label; the heroic person overcoming huge obstacles; the media portrayal of the Paralympics as featuring “superhumans”.

There is little room for young people with disabilities to simply be themselves, to follow those aspirations which motivate us all, to be valued in society, to work, to have meaningful relationships, to choose where you live.

The Unbreakables: Life and Love on Disabiliy Campus gives our students the opportunity to challenge those labels. To see them as they really are – teenagers. Yes they have disabilities but it doesn’t define who they are.

For these young people National Star College is about “moving on to bigger things”. It’s about, as one student so eloquently put it, “not being special for the first time in my life”. She said that in her previous mainstream schooling she had always been isolated.

Every time people tried to include her she said it actually isolated her more. When her class went on a school trip she travelled alone in a special taxi whilst her peers went together on the minibus. When she needed to get into a building the only level access was through a different doorway from the rest of her class.

Many people challenge the idea of specialist provision – they see it as “segregated” or “isolating”. Our students say it is the reverse. One student said he engaged more with the community whilst being at a specialist college than he ever had within his mainstream environments.

We believe that specialist education is a vital part of the “mixed economy” of provision. Specialist provision is not right for everybody, in fact for the majority of people with disabilities, mainstream provision is the most appropriate route. However what young people want is the choice. The choice to decide which environment is right for them, which place will enable them to achieve their goals and contribute to their societies.

We need to go back to the work of Professor John Tomlinson and his report on “inclusive learning” in 2006. He stated that we needed to stop locating the difficulty or deficit with the student and focus instead on the capacity of the educational institution to understand and respond to individual learning requirements.

It is about “the greatest degree of match or fit between individual learning requirements and provision”.

This is why we supported these documentaries by Minnow Films. This series is enabling young people with disabilities to challenge the myths, to defy the labels and to focus the debate where it should be - finding the right environment and opportunities for every young person to achieve their potential. 

The Unbreakables: Life and Love on Disability Campus  will be broadcast on Thursday 30 July at 9pm on BBC Three

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