My best teacher

9th January 2004 at 00:00
We were the first disabled students to take drama GCSE and it's because of Mrs Thomas that I'm an actor

My French teacher, Mr Terry, was so amazing that two classmates and I wrote to Jimmy Savile to "fix it" for him to go on a helicopter ride. Our school was near Odiham airbase and every time a Chinook went over Mr Terry would stop the lesson and speak into his watch: "Pick me up in the back field in five minutes, Harry." So we wrote to Jim'll Fix It to take him up in a helicopter, and they did.

Mr Terry was short with greying curly hair, in his mid forties. He was strict, but he also had a great sense of humour and he helped us to laugh.

He often played practical jokes on us. He was mad about Samuel Pepys.

During his lessons you could always throw him a red herring by mentioning Pepys and that would put him off the scent of teaching French.

I went to the Lord Mayor Treloar College, in Alton, Hampshire, which is the largest boarding school for physically disabled kids in the country. I was born with brittle bone disease, osteogenesis, a genetic defect which means that my bone density is only about 15 per cent. I've broken my bones over 100 times, and had more than 70 operations in my youth.

I often stayed at the Terrys' house instead of going home at weekends. I was quite close to Mr Terry because his able-bodied daughter, Claire, became my best friend when she came on our French exchange trip. Mr Terry took the whole class, predominantly wheelchair users, on an exchange trip to a French boarding school for disabled students.

There were only 10 in our class, and sadly six of them have died, either from muscular dystrophy-type illness or from Aids-related diseases. In 198788 some blood imported from America was not properly screened and it was given to haemophiliac boys at school. About 30 boys were affected. But it was, and is, a wonderful school. It is in beautiful grounds, and there are recording studios, tennis courts, independence flats and hospitals.

Treloar taught me never to use my disability as an excuse not to get on in society or to work.

Drama was my best subject. We were the first disabled students to take drama GCSE. We all got a B, but Mrs Thomas, our drama teacher, was angry that none of us got an A. It's because of Mrs Thomas that I'm an actor and involved in the media. Treloar has two big stages and every year we'd put on three or four productions. We did incredibly elaborate productions, such as West Side Story or Bugsy Malone. Mrs Thomas had tremendous energy and encouraged us all to do a bit of everything: act, sing, play musical instruments.

I did English and German A-levels at Alton College, which got me used to being in a more integrated environment, while continuing to board at Treloar. I was so lucky to be cast in Eldorado straight after A-levels. My ambition had been to do a degree in business management; I approached several universities, but none of them had wheelchair access so wouldn't consider me. I thought about doing other subjects such as law, hotel management, German. I was turned down for hotel management because I wasn't able to do silver service. Thankfully attitudes and facilities have improved since. The part in Eldorado came out of the blue.

I used to visit Claire Terry at Essex University, and it was such fun. I would have loved the experience of being a university student, especially for the lifestyle.

I keep in touch with Mr Terry and Mrs Thomas, and I've been back to Treloar many times. I was there a few weeks ago opening new independence training flats, which are kitted out with mod cons such as push button hoists, adjustable hobs and infrared rays to open doors. Great for helping kids learn how to be independent when they leave school.

Actor, producer, disability consultant and campaigner Julie Fernandez was talking to Judy Parkinson


1974 Born in London

1979 Attends Ethel Davis School for disabled children, Redbridge, Essex

1980 Moves to Stuttgart for two years

1982 Returns to Ethel Davis school

1986 Lord Mayor Treloar School and College, Alton, Hampshire

1990 Takes A-levels at Alton College, while boarding at Treloar

1992 Cast as Nessa Lockhead in Eldorado, BBC soap opera

1994 Appears in Dangerfield, BBC drama

1998 Sets up charity, the Disability Foundation (tel 020 8954 7373)

2002-03 Plays Brenda in award-winning BBC comedy series The Office

2003 Sets up television production company, the Wheelie Good Company

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