Children segregated because of their disabilities are in danger of lifelong isolation from the communities that can nourish them, says Jo Cochrane
DUCATION for all children is a basic right, and for most children and their parents it is a straightforward process - children are registered at and attend their local school. For disabled children and their parents, however, this straightforward process can become a nightmare leading to isolation and segregation.
Take the case of identical twins - Jannai and Hannah - identical but different. At four Jannai went to a school that "met her needs" and Hannah went to her local primary. Four years on their mother noticed: "Hannah has many friends, people in my community know her and look out for her. On the other hand, no one even knows that Hannah has a twin sister because Jannai is never there, she is always outwith her community or in the house."
We know that seeing what is right in front of your nose demands a constant struggle. However, once her mother had noticed, she acted. Jannai is now in the same mainstream school as Hannah on a part-time basis, with a view to a full-time placement soon. The entire school community has gained from the experience so far and expects to learn more.
Or take the case of Kirsty. As her mother writes: "School, at present, for Kirsty is within a communication facility, some seven miles from home with 11 other children all with varying communication difficulties. She arrives home from school each day by taxi, no friends to play with and no prospect of anyone coming to knock on the door."
Again, once her mother had noticed what was happening, she also acted. Kirsty is now to join her peers at the local primary in August. The school is looking forward to welcoming her and maybe, in the not too distant future, there will be a knock at Kirsty's door after school to see if she can come out to play.
Exclusion from local schools is exclusion from local communities and networks of friends and neighbours. Children segregated at five will find that attempts to rejoin their communities as young adults is very difficult - and this often leads to lifelong isolation for them and their families.
In Scotland, parents are still often told that special schools or units are the "best" places to meet their child's special needs, with support, equipment, facilities and special teachers. All children also have ordinary needs - the need to be with ther brothers and sisters, to have friends, to go out to play, to be part of their community, to learn new things and meet lots of different people.
Equity is a campaigning group of parents, siblings and disabled people who believe that all the needs of children can be met most effectively in mainstream schools. They should not have to make a choice about whether to meet the special or the ordinary needs of their child. With adjustments and support, such children can be educated in mainstream schools, to the benefit of not just the disabled child but the whole school.
Andrew is aged 12 and has Down's syndrome. He did not believe he should be separated from the friends he had attended primary with. So despite the misgivings of the professionals and his parents, he said no to the special school. After a term at secondary school his parents report: "He is happy, building a network of friends and learning. He has a full-time auxiliary and part-time learning support to differentiate the curriculum. He is fitter because he has to walk from class to class. He can walk far more quickly than anyone realised because he wants to keep up with the class. He is more organised because his auxiliary expects him to be. He is on time for the bus because he hates to miss it."
What did it take to include Andrew? His determination, a willingness by the authority to listen, good communication between school and home, sufficient support to allow him to be included in the class and in all their activities and some adjustments to the curriculum. What did it take to include Jannai? Children who didn't know how to be unwelcoming. A school that knew it had a lot to learn and people who were willing to try new things. What will it take to include Kirsty? Imagination, courage, a belief she belongs.
We need the recent legislation and guidelines, and we need money to fund support and adaptations. Teachers need training and support to believe that they can teach all children. But just as important, we need to believe in our children - all of them. The children will be our greatest teachers. Peer support programmes in other countries have dramatically increased the likelihood that inclusion can be successful. We know that these and similar stories help - so we have to keep telling them.
Jo Cochrane writes on behalf of the Equity Group. For further information telephone or fax Equity on 01383 733390 or e-mail equitygroupuk@ yahoo.co.uk).