Inclusive education: from my perspective
I am a 23-year-old university student. I have been totally blind since birth. In January 2006, Save the Children asked me and five other young disabled people to speak at a meeting on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We also ran a workshop highlighting the daily issues disabled people face around the world. I spoke on the importance of inclusive education and why it is necessary for disabled people to be educated with their peers.
I was educated in a mainstream school and feel that it has had a major impact on my life. I started going to a special school for blind people. At the age of eight I transferred to the mainstream education system, and stayed there. I passed the necessary exams and am now completing a degree in French, Italian and Spanish. Last year I spent three months working in an orphanage in Costa Rica, seven months teaching English in a secondary school in France, and three months attending a language school in Italy. I then got bored of being back home in the UK so I did an extra month’s work experience in Romania. I worked as a journalist for an English speaking magazine. I feel that none of this would have been possible if I had not spent many years in the mainstream education system.
I cannot lie and say that being in a mainstream school was easy because it wasn’t at all. I was bullied for several years for being blind. I also experienced ‘suffocating’ or just terrible learning support assistants. I felt very alone; I thought nobody in the entire world understood my disability. However, I feel that this experience has made me a lot more streetwise and generally more aware of the harsh realities of our society.
It also taught me that even though I have a disability, I am no less important or intelligent than any non-disabled person, and I can achieve anything. I look at people who went through special schools and they have a different perception of life. They are generally not ambitious and a lot less willing or able to fight for, or speak out about, anything they are unhappy with (e.g. the level of support they are given). Academically, they are not pushed to achieve their potential. From the special school I attended, in my year group, only one student out of fifteen went to university.
As well as being vital for disabled people, inclusive education is just as essential for non-disabled children. It helps them learn from an early age to respect differences and establish relationships with their disabled peers. I have often asked myself why so much ignorance exists towards disability in our society. The answer I think is that people are not exposed to disability. How can you know anything about a subject if you have never experienced it or met anyone who has? If the two groups are always separated they will never learn how to socialise with each other.
To enable both disabled and non-disabled children to feel more comfortable with each other and with themselves it is vital to stop thinking about disability as a bad thing. A lot of disabled children, including myself, spend years thinking they are a burden to their non-disabled classmates. A lot of emphasis is put on how non-disabled friends have to help disabled children with things they are not able to do due to their disability. But it is equally important to recognise that disabled children are just as able in other ways. Just because they cannot do one thing or need help taking part in one particular activity, doesn’t mean they can’t help their non-disabled friends with something else they find difficult. This needs to be encouraged. Not only does this make disabled children feel more useful, it also allows non-disabled children to learn that disabled children are just as able despite their disability.
It is important to realise that all children are individuals and therefore learn in different ways. For example, blind children learn well by listening, children with learning difficulties or children who are very energetic learn better by moving around. It would benefit all children if more alternative methods of learning were incorporated into the curriculum, so that learning isn’t purely about sitting still at a desk all day.
I would like to highlight again the importance of inclusive education for all disabled children, as this helps them socially and academically. It also teaches their non-disabled peers how to interact positively and form relationships with disabled people.
Lucia lives in London. She has just finished a degree in French, Spanish and Italian, and will soon start work as a disability awareness co-ordinator for a self-help group in Papua New Guinea. Lucia is actively involved in disability politics. She can be contacted by email at: email@example.com or via EENET.