Documented lives

9th June 2006 at 01:00
SPEAKING FOR OURSELVES. Schools and Colleges pack. Free from Scope. 6 Market Road, London N7 9PW. Tel: 020 7619 7228. Email:

Scope has produced a free resource for schools as part of its two-year oral history project. Tom Deveson reports

"Spaz", "cripple", "zombie" - many will remember hearing (and perhaps even using) these abusive words in streets and playgrounds, probably giving little thought to the insult and pain caused. Speaking for Ourselves is part of a larger project which hopes to restore to people with cerebral palsy the right to shape the language in which their experiences, feelings and history are talked about. This excellent pack for key stages 3 and 4 includes a recent Radio 4 documentary in which some of that history was recalled, but it is directed more to the present and future than to the past. It also contains a 15-minute DVD, a CD-Rom with a PowerPoint slideshow, a teacher's guide, a poster and a set of worksheets.

The testimony comes from people who are older than 50, and there are certainly plenty of bad childhood memories. We hear of bullying, denial of opportunities and a pervasive atmosphere of negativity. Neighbours called one girl "Useless Eustace", and the taunts became ruder after she learned to ride a bike. A man describes how as a boy he was not allowed to mix with girls: "You had to behave yourself, otherwise you'd be put away." There's a powerful account of a neurologist telling one girl's mother to forget about her and stop wasting his time. She was devastated, but, on the way home, her tears turned to anger and she fought thereafter to safeguard the interests of her child.

Several other parents also emerge as heroes. One father insisted that his son should attend a mainstream school: "He can learn to read and write with his brother." Another man describes how "my parents never treated us any different", even when that involved sharing physical punishments.

Family support made a huge difference to what children felt about their capabilities, and teachers and neighbours were not all indifferent or unhelpful. One headteacher told a careers master who was suggesting a menial job: "You don't know our Alan, he can do whatever he wants." The encouragement is still appreciated. One man says: "My early life was brilliant I I was never without anybody to play with."

The anthology of memories is not only valuable in itself; it is also a fine example of the methods and purposes of oral history. People with cerebral palsy were instrumental in producing the chronicle as well as featuring in it. We learn how important it was for them to contribute to a record that might otherwise be lost in collective forgetfulness and neglect. We are also made aware of the responsibilities involved - the need to listen critically, to remain quiet when necessary, to sift fact from opinion and to allow painful unspoken truths to emerge. Everything here will become part of the British Library National Sound Archive.

On the CD-Rom there are also photographs of schools which can be quizzed for details about past attitudes and practices. Charity posters have a special tale to tell. Scope used to be called the Spastics Society. During the 1950s it launched an appeal with the phrase: "It might be your child!"

By 1983, things had changed and the posters read: "Bill's worst handicap is other people's attitude." To analyse the differences in language and the angle from which the public is approached is itself a valuable lesson.

The teachers' guide and the seven topic worksheets set these educational possibilities out directly and thoughtfully. There are good practical sections with details of websites, books, films and other resources.

Perhaps the more interesting parts, however, are those which deliberately challenge common perceptions. The "medical model" of cerebral palsy (and other forms of disability) is set against the "social model" - the former focusing on what people are not able to do, the latter seeing disadvantage as due to complex forms of institutional discrimination. Language is central here: "disablism" is used with a warning that it may not be found in the dictionary, unlike "racism" and "sexism". Asking why this is so should provoke lively discussion.

Students can work on this pack in history, citizenship or PSHE lessons.

They might look at issues of access to workplaces, or of what living independently really means; they might think about the differences between the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 and the Disability Amendment Act of 2005; and they might go on to investigate the careers of people with cerebral palsy in journalism, engineering, business and education.

Among much else, they will realise that the positive changes of the past 30 years are only a beginning.

l "What Works? Educating disabled children for life" is the title of a one-day conference organised by The TES and Scope at London's Victoria Park Plaza on June 20. For details Email fiona.shorey @ or tel: 020 7619 7376

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