So last week was an absolute world-wind for me for two reasons; I went viral and I graduated – in that order. The whole story has two starting points really, one is in my childhood, and the other is in a news story that broke early last week about some SNA’s (special needs assistants) being cut from a school on the northside of Cork.
As a child, growing up in 90’s Ireland, special education supports weren’t as well developed as they are now – any supports available to children and teenagers were provided on an ad-hoc basis by schools, so these supports varied greatly between every school. It was sheer luck and nothing else that the primary school I went to provided a limited support to kids like me, and provided me with learning supports around english and maths mostly. Classroom supports like SNA’s came into force after the 1998 Education Act was introduced because the Act gave a legislative right to all children to have their special educational needs met in schools. But it wasn’t until I was in Fourth Class – I was about 10 years old – before I actually had the help of a needs assistant to do the things that I couldn’t: take notes, describe any demonstrations in class, and generally make sure I’m keeping up visually with what is going on in the classroom.
Up until then, I relied purely on sound because of my vision impairment. I relied on sound to learn how to spell, form words, write and do maths. I relied on short, inadvertent, descriptions of diagrams or photos from teachers to understand a flow chart or table. Until I got an SNA, I spent a lot of my time in classrooms hoping a teacher would just happen to describe what was happening on the blackboard so that I might have some hope of learning at the same speed as other kids in my class. All I ever wanted to do was learn at the same speed as my friends, but I didn’t have that chance and ultimately ended up falling behind educationally at times.
I was nearly eight years old before I really started to grasp how to write sentences properly and spell words with silent letters in them. My handwriting structure never improved beyond that of a 10 year-olds because of my finer motor skills not being developed at the same rate as others. To this day, I still struggle massively with basic maths and arithmetic – and I put that down to the fact that I never learned the basics of dividing and multiplying until I was much older than my friends because someone wasn’t there to help me take notes and learn from the blackboard like other the kids. There’s a reason we teach children these tools from a very young age – because it’s far easier to pick these tools up as a young child than an older child who learned how to do things ‘the wrong way’ first. Having said that, I definitely do think that having the support of an SNA to help me ‘keep up’ with my peers did improve my educational situation. It helped me to learn at the same pace as others, and I needed less and less learning support because I was finally getting the chance to learn at the same pace as everyone else. It stopped the slippery slope I was heading on – up until the point that I got this support, the frustration of not being able to keep up started to negatively affect my self-confidence and made me almost fearful of going to school.
I hadn’t thought about this much since I had left primary school and completed my second and third level education – I suppose I just ‘got on with it’. It became second nature for me to have an SNA by my side during my second level education – with the exception of my final year when my SNA hours were dramatically cut. But on the eve of my graduation last week, I heard a news story about how 3 SNA’s had been cut from a school in Cork. At a very minimum, three children were on the cusp of losing this invaluable resource that I had. I say ‘at the very minimum’ because in Ireland, it is a rarity for one SNA to be assigned to one child – often times these assistants are split between at least two children, if not more.
It made me sit back and think for a minute – where would I be now without my SNA? What would have happened to my education had I missed out on the chance to have a level playing field to others when it came to learning? I can tell you exactly where I would be without that:
- I would not have finished my primary school education
- I would still struggle to read and write
- I would have been unable to take part in mainstream education in second level
- I definitely would not have made it to college
- I most certainly would not have graduated with my masters last week
All these feelings are ultimately what lead me to writing the Facebook post below – which subsequently went viral. I wrote the post because I wanted to stand up for the kids and parents who were in a situation where my parents and I once were. I wrote the post because I wanted someone with some power over the situation – a legislator, a Dept of Education official, etc. – to think about this huge difference that having an SNA made to my life. It completely changed my life course and direction. Unless you have first hand experience of this, it can be terribly hard to grasp just what a difference a resource like this can make to a child. These department officials, ministers and legislators are literally holding a childs’ education in their hands – I want to make sure that they realise this.
Tomorrow morning at 10am I will be conferred with a Masters in Government in UCC. This is my second conferring in two…
Instead of rabbiting on any more than I already have, I’ll leave you with the links below to a few different interviews I did on the back of the viral post – just click on them to open.
The Irish Sun
If I can be of any help to anyone on this topic, please get in touch through Facebook or Twitter – I’m more than happy to help!
And yes, I did really enjoy my graduation!