From school to college was a journey out of exclusion

21st October 2011 at 01:00
After the isolation of school days, a move into further education helped leave a world of prejudice far behind

Communication is the key to life. For me it is slightly more difficult than for everyone else, because of my disability: cerebral palsy. I feel this ruined my time at high school and would like to tell you why.

Throughout my five years at school, I was not bullied. I was ignored by everyone, which I think is worse - at least when you are bullied, you get some kind of attention, which I craved. I used to go weeks at a time with no one even making eye contact with me, let alone having a conversation. I am aware that young teenagers are very image-conscious and anxious about being able to fit in - and because I was different, my fellow students wanted nothing to do with me.

As if it wasn't hard enough to be disabled at school, I also found I was questioning my sexuality and was appalled by the lack of support my school gave me. I remember telling my guidance teacher that I thought about being gay: her response was "Oh dear", and she then walked out of the room. Two days later, she had a flyer for LGBT Scotland, a fantastic organisation which I still work with four years on. It had a Post-it note with my name on it, so during her drop-in session every person who came in saw this on her desk, which automatically outed and stigmatised me even more.

During the summer, my younger sister brought some of her friends over and they looked at me as if I was some kind of alien. This brought back so many memories from school and it really saddens me that these people are almost being taught to hate disabled people. I don't know why this is. My school was known as a pond socially, which means you were either in the gang or not. If you weren't, you had no friends.

My teachers did very little to help and would quite often encourage the stigmatisation. On one occasion, a teacher told another pupil: "If you don't stop talking, I'll make you sit next to Josh." The girl almost started crying and said, "I would rather stand outside." That will be ingrained in my memory for the rest of my life.

There was not one day of school that I looked forward to, and I don't think there was ever a day in the five years I was there that a teacher ever told me to stop talking. It wasn't that teachers were frightened to discipline a disabled student, but rather that I never spoke in class.

I endured five years in my high school in Edinburgh before things eventually became too much for me and I left to join a local further education college. Thankfully, I found attitudes were very different there. At college, the tutors included me in classes, I made so many friends and no one seemed to care about my disability. I think I made more friends in my first week there than I ever did at school.

Two years after leaving college, and three years after leaving school, I have kept in contact with around five people from college, but not one from school. My grades were so much better at college, even though I was doing more Highers, because I was having a great time.

I am now studying law at Stirling University and have lots of friends. I do not feel that my disability is having a huge impact on my life.

At university, academia is only a small part of the whole package; university is more about finding out who you are as a person as well as making great friends and learning skills for life. This is also what secondary school should be about.

If you are a teacher and have disabled pupils in your class, I would really like you to think about whether they are included.

And there isn't just one way to include disabled people in a classroom. What really helped me was being treated just like one of the others; being shown a positive attitude; and being kept an eye on to see whether I was being ignored in activities involving group work. Being asked questions in class is an excellent way of being included and stretched intellectually.

I have been so frustrated with people's perceptions of disability that I am now working with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and training all front- of-house staff on how to interact with disabled customers.

I was also the disabled students' officer at Stirling University, which involved helping students with individual problems, as well as working with presidents of clubs and societies and training them to make the effort to involve disabled students in their clubs. I am currently LGBT officer at Stirling and love to challenge perceptions of what sexuality and gender are. I faced the exact same problems through having a different sexuality, as being disabled, with my classmates.

I wish there was a way of teaching young people not to be afraid to talk to people who are different. I would love to see a new breed of people leaving school who are open-minded, able to talk to new people and not care about differences.

Teachers of any subject need to think about how to include diversity and inclusion in their classroom, whether it's disability, sexuality, gender or race. We are all people and no one should be treated less favourably than anyone else in any situation, especially not in school.

Joshua Hepple is a law student at Stirling University.

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