On this site, I have discussed many themes surrounding disability. In my essay on Harry Potter and disability, I discussed how inclusion 9of disabled characters in literature can help overcome many of the boundaries disabled people face, such as prejudice. In my short story “bionic matt”, I explored the possibility of finding a ‘cure’ for CP. However, both of these pieces rely heavily on the medical model of disability, which holds that a disability should be seen as a medical condition, and disabled people should be treated as patients. Many people hold that it is, in fact, society, rather than biology, that disables a person: it is society that refuses to install ramps in buildings; it is society which refuses to employ us so we have to rely on benefit; and it is society that sends us to separate schools.
In the piece on Harry Potter, I assert that there is a need for thee segregated schooling of students with special needs. This is not exactly true, and this is the issue I want to deal with in this entry. Indeed, the story on which that essay was based concerns a disabled student going into mainstream entry, and the protagonist’s disability is used largely as a dramatic tool (to counterbalance Snape), and not as the central theme. The point is, there is a huge benefit to be gained from inclusive education, and the risks of not implementing it are truly dire.
Indeed, I am not a fan of the special school system. I left my school with a handful of GCSEs and one A-level, to my knowledge the only student who did A-Levels at all. When I visited my old school this Easter, the news that I was going to university was greeted as if it were something truly rare. Special schools, it must be said, are not places where academic achievement is encouraged: with some notable exceptions, most of the examination reports from special schools are abysmal. For example, most people in my GCSE year did not achieve above grade D.
The case for inclusive schooling is therefore very strong indeed. It is not only beneficial for the disabled student but for other students too, as it helps to break down prejudice. Any barriers soon begin to break down when this segregation is halted. In Berlin, I flourished: all those around me accepted me for who I was, and exactly the same thing will happen when all children are taught together.
However, there will, of course, be problems in achieving this. Nature has not made the playing-field level, and disabled students will always need help. One way of doing this is providing them with Learning support assistants (LSAs), who will help a student do a thing he or she cannot, such as taking notes. However, LSAs are only useful up to a limit – they cannot, for example, make a child friends – and nobody wants to be shadowed continuously throughout the school day. Disabled students should be encouraged to be as independent as possible.
There is a conflict,, therefore, between a need for help and the need for independence, and this is solved through technology. Mobility problems are solved through the use of wheelchairs, communication problems are solved –although addressed would be a better adjective – through the use of communication aids.
While mobility has a bearing on education – after all, one needs to get to class – it is the latter field that interests me the most, and has the most bearing on education.
If one cannot communicate, there is no way to assess one’s ability, which causes the education of many disabled students to suffer greatly. For example, getting my Lightwriter when I was 11 meant I could communicate more fluently, meaning I could do GCSE English and A-Level English at the comprehensive near my special school. Yet I was lucky: to my knowledge, I have no learning disabilities (save for the one that prevents me learning that beer is bad), and I was reading and writing by the time I was 5 or 6. Hence I can access a communication aid with a qwerty keyboard, and can thus use the full English lexicon. What places students at a severe disadvantage is when they are not literate enough to access the normal writing system, so a series of alternative writing systems has been invented.
As a philologist and communication aid user, these systems interest me immensely. It must be said that they strike me as very limited as an alternative to normal writing, but that does not necessarily matter. Bliss, for example, is made up of 2000 symbols, each representing a word. Although the combinations of symbols one can use means ones vocabulary is virtually infinite, this still compares starkly with the 500,000 words of the Oxford English Dictionary. How can a student be expected to learn efficiently, or respond articulately to media if he or she only has access to 2000 words? Where at all possible, literacy must be a priority. Yet here again we see a failure in special schools, because they teach kids with learning disabilities to use systems like bliss. It would be, thereafter, harder to teach a child the normal alphabet because he or she has grown up using symbols.
Writing systems aside, how a child actually communicates with his teachers or classmates is another problem. My Lightwriter – in my opinion, the ideal device – is simply a qwerty keyboard, 2 liquid crystal displays, and a voice output system. Using this, I can say anything, from ordering German food to discussing the work of Tolkien. Yet the communication aids other children are given are not as versatile because they lack the physical or cognitive ability – special schools claim – to use things like a Lightwriter. Thus such children are ‘fobbed off’ with the simplest of communication aids, some containing no more than six words (unless more options are offered by an LSA). How can one expect a child to show the full range of his knowledge with only six words in front of him? On the other hand, some Voice output Communication aids (VOCAs) can store enormous vocabularies of up to 10,000 words, which, together with the use of a keyboard, mean a user can swiftly access the full English vocabulary.
There is a case, therefore, for teaching kids together, and with as little human assistance as possible. Disabled children are being failed by a special school system which does not allow them to access the curriculum properly. Many students with communication problems are dismissed as having learning difficulties, and so are not taught to their full potential. I find this state of affairs quite sickening, and I have decided that it is my duty to try to help.