Can mainstream cope with all our children?

9th January 2004 at 00:00
says Francesca Martinez (right), a comedienne whose cerebral palsy does not inhibit her, although some teachers found it difficult to deal with

Poor Mr Rainbow. He was my junior school music teacher and responsible for assembling the choir and making sure it was full of angelic voices. It was a mainstream school but I could see no reason why my cerebral palsy should stop me singing my heart out and bringing tears to my proud parents' eyes.

I entered into a Rocky-style training schedule, determined to make him see past my dodgy notes and beached whale-like wail. When the day came, we lined up in the school hall and waited our turn to sing to Mr Rainbow, accompanied by him on the piano. At last it was my turn. I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers behind my back and opened my mouth. "Happy Birthday to you. Happy BirthI '' The piano stopped and Mr Rainbow looked at me. "Thank you, Francesca.'' "But I haven't finished,'' I protested. Mr Rainbow looked embarrassed. "Er, I think I've heard enough. Maybe next year?'' Or not, as it happened.

But I soon got over the fact that I wouldn't be missing maths in to go to choir practice. Another ongoing mission was to get one of my paintings (OK - paint on paper) displayed where people could see it, and not hidden behind a door. I began to make a concerted effort to turn my style from "messy" to "neat" to rival the perfect paintings which always got the places of honour. I never did achieve "neat", but I did ruin several outfits and those of others in close proximity.

Another regular mission of mine was to get one of my paintings (OK, paint on paper) displayed where people could see it and not be hidden behind a door. I began to make a concerted effort to turn my style from "messy" to "neat" in order to rival the perfect paintings, which always got the places of honour. I never did achieve "neat", but I did splatter and ruin several outfits and those worn by others in close proximity to me. In fact, everyone at my table was issued with extra "Francesca-proof" aprons to protect themselves.

But, the one thing that I loved even more than singing or painting was, without a doubt, acting. I acquired a taste for financial insecurity early on. So, when it was announced that my year was to put on the summer play, I was ecstatic. I was off to secondary school in the autumn and this was the perfect way to end an imperfect, yet incredibly enjoyable, four years (especially, as I was later to learn, when compared to secondary school).

Then I found we were doing Oklahoma. The thigh-slapping, barn-dancing extravaganza. Ever the optimist, I was sure I'd be offered a speaking part and one that would exclude me from the dancing. I was wrong. The speaking parts were given to the kids who painted those perfect paintings and sang in the choir, and I was givenI permission to see the show with my parents.

Well, I did what any self-respecting wannabe actor would do - I went home and moaned to my parents. A few years later, I discovered that my parents had complained to the headteacher that it was unfair that I couldn't take part in the play when everyone else who wanted a part had been given one.

And it worked - to an extent. I was offered the part of a cowgirl who sings and dances. I was too happy to worry about the physical requirements of my role, and practically jumped into my cowgirl outfit. My school had decided that I would be less conspicuous singing and dancing in a checked shirt and tasselled waistcoat, than speaking a few lines. With hindsight, I'd have to disagree.

I have to thank my teachers and classmates at my secondary school for providing me with so much comedic material. And my mum. Remember how there was always someone in your class who had weird sandwiches for lunch? I was that someone. Years later, I said to my mum, "Don't you think I had enough problems without you giving me hummus and avocado?"

There are so many stories I could tell about my mainstream secondary school, but here are my choice pickings. My PE teacher forcing me to play table tennis for six weeks (a Ms Ram - I don't know where she lives but I'm sure British Telecom has details), even after I brought a note from my mum saying, "Dear Ms Ram, Francesca can't play table tennis today as she has brain damage."

Then there was the time when everyone was kept after school because someone had set off the fire alarm, and I had to miss out on the detention because my taxi had arrived. The next day, my teacher told me that I could make up the detention at lunch time, to which I replied, "My class may have sat through an extra 10-minute detention, but I can't walk properly. I think they win."

But despite all those hiccups, I passionately believe that every child should be entitled to mainstream education. How can we expect disabled people to be fully part of our society if we don't embrace them for the first 18 years of their life?

It's as bad as racial segregation, when we define children by what they can't do. Look at segregation this way - any child who has a unique life experience is an asset to any classroom. Every disability is unique, which means I can only talk about my experiences. But I can say that growing up with a disability does make you face certain challenges at a young age, so it gives you a maturity and a perspective on life that can benefit you and others around you. For example, maybe an able-bodied teenager won't feel her life is ending because she has a zit if she has grown up with people of different abilities who have shown her that appearances aren't that fundamental.

I recall visiting mainstream secondary schools, only to be told that they didn't have the facilities to "cope" with me and were unsure how I'd fit in. If I was head of a "special" school, and I was interviewing an able-bodied child, I could be just as prejudiced by saying, "I'm afraid that being able-bodied means that you haven't grown in certain areas as much as some of our other students. Because your body has always worked perfectly, you haven't developed other facets of your character, and I feel that you would just get left behind by many of your more mature classmates."

The only way to achieve a fully integrated society is by having all children grow up together. That way, people will no longer fear difference but embrace it as a positive part of life. Though I can't say the same for my singing.

Francesca Martinez, 25, has been a comedienne for four-and-a-half years.

She features in Monkey Business @Bar 113, Camden, north London, on February 28

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