A voice for those seldom heard

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
The NasenTES Book Awards will be announced today at the Special Needs Exhibition in the Business Design Centre in London. On these pages Elaine Williams, Susannah Kirkman and Geraldine Brennan look at this year's award-winning titles

Michelle knows intensely what it feels like to be labelled. She is very articulate on the subject. Assessed as having "moderate learning difficulties" from a young age she is clear that such an assessment has marked her for life and is something over which she has no control:

"Nothing was discussed with me. All that I know is that it feels as though I've had a kind of like stamp trade mark put on me like saying 'Oh you've got a mental age of a 12-year-old' and things like that. That's all I know.

It makes me feel stupid because I know that I can do better... It's the government that does these kind of tests and makes these decisions."

Voices like Michelle's are seldom heard. During the course of the past 50 years more and more people have been labelled as having learning difficulties, yet their voices, argues Derrick Armstrong, professor of education at the University of Sheffield, have been silenced, despite an "inclusion" agenda in education. In his latest book Experiences of Special Education: re-evaluating policy and practice through life stories, winner of the NasenTES Academic Book Award, he gives voice to people who have lived with this label, showing how it has shaped and disadvantaged the length of their lives. Michelle, who wanted a career in caring, is curtailed in her choices even at college. She says: "I wanted to do a care course but that's not really what I'm doing. We do first aid and we do health and safety I think it is, but that's it, that's all we're doing... if we were real students we'd be given a choice of what we wanted."

Derrick Armstrong tells another story, this one not included in the book, of a woman who is confined to a long-stay residential home due to her learning difficulties which is subsequently closed down. She is moved out into the community and manages some semblance of independence until she is knocked down by a car at a Pelican crossing which is on a green light.

Despite the fact that the fault lay entirely with the driver who is prosecuted, she is deemed incapable of independent living and is placed back in residential care.

Armstrong interviewed 40 people of different ages identified as being "mentally retarded", "subnormal" or as having "learning difficulties" from the years immediately before the 1944 Education Act to 1994. He spent time with them and their families, went to rugby matches with them, listened to their stories over the course of two years. Their experiences, he argues, give a deep insight into the development of special education. Their lives, he says, reflect a struggle to be "ordinary" members of their community in a world that identifies them as "extra-ordinary".

Their lives and stories in fact expose what he argues to be the paradox of inclusion. For while inclusion is driven ostensibly by humanitarian concerns for the care of children "whose disadvantaged lives limit their educational opportunity" its effect, he says, is to perpetuate the segregation and isolation of those people identified as different.

While eugenics most heavily influenced the expansion of segregated education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to the incarceration and separation of the "sub-normal", it is in fact inclusion that has led to "extended systems of monitoring and control to much larger numbers of children and their families".

The inclusion agenda from the 1980s onwards, which identified up to 20 per cent of children as having some special educational need, coincided says Armstrong, with movement into the post-industrial age, a rising tide of youth unemployment and concerns about delinquency and social disaffection.

Inclusion into the mainstream may stem from benevolence, but fundamentally it is an attempt to control from within, to regulate "troublesome populations", rather than an acceptance and celebration of difference.

Moreover, because success in mainstream education has been reduced to five GCSE passes, the numbers of those categorised as having special educational needs within it has inevitably grown. It is no accident that around 80 per cent of those with special needs are working class, the majority are boys, with blacks and travellers "over-represented". The burgeoning of special education under the flag of inclusion he says is more to do with the needs of professionals than it is with the needs of children: "Labelling of children legitimises professional identities."

As an academic with an unorthodox history, Derrick Armstrong is acutely aware of the effects of categorisation. Now in his 50s, he failed his 11-plus exam and was excluded from his secondary modern twice, once for burgling a teacher's house, a result he says of his frustration at limited opportunities. He left school at 16 to become a gardener, returned to college to take A-levels, studied for a degree in philosophy at University College, London before becoming a welder. He then began to teach welders in further education, gaining an interest in adult returnees. Though white, he married a black woman and has black children. All of these experiences have led him to take an academic interest in issues of special education: "The way in which we understand those who are different is a reflection of broader changes in society."

By giving a voice to people with special educational needs, he says, he is hoping to place the debate about special education "into the domain of social justice" by breaking down the current "humanitarian mythology". He hopes for greater recognition of the "value of difference" and that the voices of those labelled with special educational needs will be heard "in their own right". That is the purpose of the book: "People with learning difficulties are pushed into spaces where we don't even see them; it is possible not to meet them or get to know them in any serious way. Theirs is a voice not easily heard and easily dismissed. But their stories are crucial if we are to really understand the tensions and contradictions of the society we live in."

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