Disabled fight 'get-out' clauses

28th April 2000 at 01:00
TWELVE-YEAR-OLD Zahrah Manuel will at last be able settle into her new secondary school after the Easter break.

The youngster, from Camden, north London, has cerebral palsy. She uses a wheelchair and

communicates by triggering pre-recorded messages.

Zahrah spent her primary years in mainstream classes, but last September was turned away by Whitefield school in Barnet - even though it is funded to cope with disabled youngsters.

Her mother Preethi had to battle through the courts to get her admitted. As a result, she started there only last month.

Richard Rieser, chair of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, says Zahrah's case illustrates the difficulties disabled students face trying to get a mainstream place.

The alliance and other disability groups are gearing up for a battle with ministers over "get-out" clauses in the law that they say allow mainstream schools to bar entry to disabled youngsters.

The Government, in its new anti-discrimination Bill, is proposing to strengthen the rights of disabled or special needs children to attend mainstream schools. However, the legislation would still allow councils to bar pupils if admitting them would be too costly or have too greatan impact on other pupils' education.

The disability rights task force, a government-appointed advisory body, recommended that the only criterion for admission should be if the school met the needs and wishes of the child and parents.

In Zahrah's case, the school - backed by the education authority - appealed against her admission on all three of the grounds or "caveats" currently allowed by law: that it would not be able to meet her needs and that taking her would not be an effective use of resources and would have too big an impact on other pupils.

"When they said the school couldn't meet her needs, they hadn't even had a planning meeting with us to discuss what those needs were," said Ms Manuel.

Mr Rieser, a teacher and wheelchair-user, said: "The collective view of the Special Education Consortium - which represents more than 100 organisations - is that all three caveats must go. The Government's position is that only one is going to go. If you keep the caveats, they are pegs on which prejudices can be hung."

The new Disability Rights Commission started work this week, but chairman Bert Massie was coy about whether it would be challenging the Government over the caveats.

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