The awkward truth about disabled inclusion

20th December 2002 at 00:00
All my instincts tell me I should be a rabid advocate of mainstream education for disabled children. As a blind broadcaster and journalist, I could hardly operate in a more competitive and mainstream world. As a child, I went to two special boarding schools for the blind, and hated the separation from home, and the implication that I was somehow "different", when I knew I wasn't.

You have to go out on a very uncomfortable limb to argue against inclusion. I'm currently doing a series of radio interviews with successful disabled people. In recent days, I have listened to two ringing endorsements of integrated education, from two deeply contrasting backgrounds: James Strachan, financier, public servant, and now chairman of the Audit Commission, who is deaf; and Francesca Martinez, already a successful stand-up comedian in her early 20s, who uses her cerebral palsy as the trigger for her comedy.

Both were bullied and to some extent shunned at their single-sex mainstream schools, but their argument seems to be: "It's going to be tough out there anyway. You might as well get used to it early." Like me, both reject any suggestion that they should be separated from mainstream life.

So why do I have reservations? Because of the evidence.

Scarcely a day passes when I don't get a letter or a phone call from a blind youngster, who wants to get into the media.

Obviously, I'm only too willing to help. I remember what it was like 30 years ago, when I was trying to do the same thing. The people I talked to were by turns regretful, incredulous, and dismissive. Times have changed.

But a problem arises when I meet these aspiring future broadcasters. Although they are often keen, bright, and desperate to succeed, a vital ingredient is missing: for the purposes of broadcasting, they are almost all effectively illiterate. By this I mean that they can't read braille, at least not to the standard required for a career in radio.

Much of what you hear over the airwaves might seem like mindless wittering, but even at their most inane, broadcasters still need to be able to organise their material.

The problem is that there are now audio alternatives to braille which seem, on the face of it, to be more attractive. Quite apart from the obvious use of tapes to handle large amounts of facts (David Blunkett prefers this method), there are now screen-readers which blind people can use with computers that read text aloud in synthetic speech. You can get braille read-outs, but they are much more expensive, and anyway, braille is quite tough to learn. There is a natural temptation to go for an easier option.

These are great when all you want to do is to take information in. But what happens when you want to give it back out again? You cannot simultaneously listen to a tape and and transmit a ream of complicated facts to radio listeners, you need to put the information into a form you can read and consult silently.

If this were only about broadcasting, it might not matter. But most jobs worth doing,with reasonable prospects, involve not only taking information in, but feeding it out as well: giving presentations; writing reports to convince your boss about your ideas; or simply helping you to organise your thoughts.

The decline of braille skills is just one example of what can happen in the rush to inclusion, when the needs of disabled people - vital skills they need to succeed as adults - are ignored. It is the result of rather sloppy thinking, stemming from that comfortable inclusive mantra: "We want to treat disabled people just like everybody else."

Well, that might be comfortable and politically correct, but it doesn't work. If I had been educated under that kind of regime, I wouldn't be doing what I do now.

Until "inclusive education" means education by teachers with proper training in special needs, many children will be condemned to failure. I have yet to see, amid the inclusive rhetoric, a commitment to the resources needed to make an integrated system work.

Peter White is the BBC's disability affairs correspondent and presenter of In Touch, Radio 4's programme for blind and partially-sighted people

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