How would you feel if you had to spend all day in a wheelchair?

25th June 2010 at 01:00
Nina McDonald knows. The S6 pupil at Rothesay Academy has faced more challenges in her short life than many people do in a lifetime. Now the teenager is forging ahead with her mission - to raise awareness of the hardships young people with disabilities face on a daily basis

It takes a lot of nerve for a pupil to appear on stage and address the entire school population. It takes raw courage when that pupil has a significant speech impediment and is confined to a wheelchair.

Then again, Nina McDonald, in S6 at Rothesay Academy, is no ordinary person. She is a brave young woman who is determined to continue her mission to raise awareness of the daily challenges faced by youngsters with disabilities.

Nina, 17, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy soon after birth. She and her family have had to learn to make the many adjustments to the daily routines most of us take for granted. Her schooling at Rothesay Primary presented her with many challenges.

"While my memories of primary school are mostly happy ones, I remember my P7 year was very difficult because I had to go into hospital for two big operations," Nina recalls. "I lost a lot of time out of school as a result. Unfortunately, my confidence suffered as well."

The transition from primary to secondary can be unsettling at the best of times. Eleven-year-olds find themselves leaving the relative security of the school and the teachers they have come to know over the years, to become part of a much bigger and more diverse learning community, in which constant movement from classroom to classroom and teacher to teacher represents the new and more complex order. For Nina, however, the transition turned out to be particularly demanding.

When she first wheeled herself through the doors of Rothesay Academy over five years ago, she found herself in the "old school", which comprised separate lower and upper buildings. It was the constant movement from one classroom to another which presented her with the greatest difficulty, particularly when her journeys involved wheeling herself up the very steep hill between the two buildings. While Argyll and Bute Council provided a car with an integral tail-lift to transport her up the hill, the downside was she had to travel without the psychological security of her friends by her side.

Nina found it increasingly difficult to forge new friendships during her first two years at secondary. The principal reason was the range of physical barriers she had to face, which continued to affect her self- esteem. To compound matters, many of her peers seemed to lack the confidence and maturity to welcome her into their social groupings.

"Around that time, I felt very insecure and, at times, completely isolated," Nina reflects with a telling sigh. "On a number of occasions, I was bullied quite badly. Some of the boys used to stick chewing gum in the keyhole of the lift so I couldn't use my key, and one day I was almost pushed down the stairs in my wheelchair. While I liked most of my teachers, I was afraid to report these incidents in case it made a bad situation even worse."

Happily, the whole thing changed when Nina was allocated the pastoral care of a guidance teacher, who was always on hand to provide advice and support. By the beginning of third year, Nina's confidence had started to grow again. This support helped build the solid platform that was to herald two much happier and fulfilling years at Rothesay.

"I had really good teachers in S3 and S4, who treated me the same as everyone else," Nina recalls with a warm smile. "There were still a few incidents from time to time, but I gradually began to feel more accepted. The other pupils in my year group were also becoming a bit more sensitive to my situation."

By that time another wheelchair user, Nino Zavaroni-Robertson, had started at the school and Nina soon developed a good friendship with him and his wider circle of friends.

"The fact that there were now two of us using wheelchairs seemed to make our situation appear more normal, and took a bit of the attention away from me," she says.

Now in sixth year, Nina vividly remembers a number of the high points in her school life. She has fond memories of a trip to Aviemore, where she got the chance to ski. School social events, such as Christmas parties, which had once caused frustration because of the perceived barriers between herself and her peers, soon developed into more exciting occasions, particularly when "some of the best-looking boys in the school" plucked up the courage to ask Nina to dance, an activity which she had learned to master from the security of her wheelchair.

An engaging young woman, Nina feels happy and secure in the new Rothesay Joint Campus, which comprises the island's secondary school, one of its three primaries and the local further education college. The secondary has many impressive features, but the greatest benefit for Nina is that her classes are now contained within the one building.

As she awaits her S5 exam results, she looks forward to achieving the Higher grades that she needs to gain entry to college or university, in order to study history. "I suppose I became hooked on history when we did a big project on Egyptology in P5," she reflects. She hopes to embark on a career in the museum service to inspire others to replicate her own fascination with the past.

Nina often uses her unique insights into disability issues to support others. A few months ago, she took up a work placement in Glasgow with a national newspaper, where she assisted in writing a feature on the sensitive matter of life expectancy for children born with serious disabilities. She recalls the sympathy she felt for David Cameron, now Prime Minister, when his young son, who had a serious disability, died that same week.

Nina McDonald is not one to shirk difficult issues, having had to meet many head-on. And it is that determination to live life to the full, which defines her as the principled and resilient young woman she has become.

Ian McMurdo is a former director of education for West Dunbartonshire and author of A Life Worth Living (Carn Publishing), a bestselling book about his wife's lifelong struggle with disability


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