For me, there was always a massive difference between education and school. I’ve always loved being educated and learning new things, but I never, ever liked school. I think it was mix of things; part of it was the simple fact that school for a child like me wasn’t school for a typical 4 or 5 year old. And another side of it was that I was probably one of those kids who just didn’t enjoy school anyway, regardless of my needs.
School for a kid like me was awkward and full of questions related to that awkward ness.
“Mammy, why can’t I write things down from the blackboard? Everyone else can”
“Mammy, why do I always have to sit at the front all the time?”
“How come no one will pick me for their team in PE? Why am I always left until last?”
I started school in the mid-nineties, and I pull no punches when I say that there was next to no supports for a child with special needs. There was nothing. Most of what I remember in the way of supports was a few hours of resource a week and having to use vision aides during class time. And they were really awful aides to use! One was a hand held magnifier that was quite thick and round, really it would’ve been better used as a paperweight! Another was a handheld telescope type thing for seeing the blackboard or whiteboard. I mean, imagine being 5, 6, 7 years of age and having to use stuff that makes you stick out so obviously?! Because kids can be harsh, it’s just their nature to say what they think. So a lot of the time I’d do my best to avoid using them, I wanted to be just like my friends and my way of doing that as a child was to pretend nothing was wrong and that I didn’t need these things. That culminated in me falling behind, in terms of spelling and maths – things that are primarily done on a blackboard.
That being said, things definitely improved towards the end of primary school, when Special Needs Assistants (SNA’s) were introduced to primary and second level. The help that comes from someone sitting down and taking notes for you when you’re dealing with a severe vision problem can make a huge difference to learning. And I can say without doubt that if it wasn’t for the help of my SNA’s (most of which I’m still in contact with because you do become that friendly), I probably still would be that little girl who struggled to spell properly and couldn’t do maths very well.
College. Well now, that’s a whole different ballgame altogether. I can truly say that it was in college that I really came out of my shell. It’s a total cliché but entirely true! It’s where I really began to enjoy being “in school” as opposed to being educated, I can now enjoy the two hand in hand – and that’s how it should be! Now, I’d be lying if I said it was a breeze, it’s not. The nature of my vision problem dictates that my eyes “get tired” as the day goes on and that’s an obvious problem when you have days in the week where its 9-5 lectures. The college system of applying for help is different and I think that has a big impact. If you enter as a DARE (Disability Access Route to Education) student, or when you enter normally you can register with your colleges’ disability support service. They’re the ones responsible for ensuring your needs are assessed and catered for. In my case, most supports I’ve needed or asked for I’ve been granted, which is mostly a note taker, exam supports and sometimes learning supports. Learning supports might seem like an odd one because I have a note taker but it’s not always easy to gel together what’s on lecture slides to the notes, especially when you’re mostly relying on sound and speech to learn like I do. I found the social side of college much easier than the clique type thing that goes on in secondary school. In secondary school, everyone’s fighting to become top dog and cliques form according to music taste, fashion sense etc. Whereas in college, you have your class, societies and clubs to get involved in, and it’s much easier to integrate that way. You (generally) lose that self-consciousness you had as a teenager and become more comfortable in your own skin, disability or no disability.
To be honest, I do think some of my dislike to school could have been avoided had my parents known what supports I’d need. Special needs education was only really in its infancy (pardon the pun!) when I started school, and there was a definite “them and us” mentality when it came to approaching the Department of Education for supports. Because most parents with their first child in school with special needs won’t know what supports their child needs. Of course they don’t, they’ve never dealt with this before! The parents are trying to navigate what supports their child needs and how to get them, and they generally did that with the help of a department official who was constantly worried about their bottom line. Simply put, when I was in school, the parents and kids never had an advocate, there was no third party there to say “I think this would help your child – let’s apply for it”.
When I saw the NCSE (National Council for Special Education) had printed a booklet to help parents out with this in recent weeks, I was delighted. I really was! It’s great that parents will finally have impartial information from the body that is there to support them and their children during their school years. Having read the booklet myself, which is available here, it’s extremely comprehensive. The moderators have fully explained exactly what services children can avail of, and what they may need to do to get these, in terms of evidence. They are very honest about what services a child should or should not get, and they deal with real practicalities for children starting school with any kind of special need. I think this type of publication will go a really long way to helping give parents a direction when their kids are starting school, which is a massive help to the child. However, one thing that the NCSE has failed to address within this publication is the vast amount of cuts across the board to children with all manner of special needs. With the number of cuts to special needs children’s’ supports in recent education budgets, its vital parents begin now to acquaint themselves with the supports their children will need along the way. Above all, parents are the ones who will do the most amount of fighting for their children (whether the kids ever realise this or not!), and they have a better chances of winning battles with the Department of Education when they’ve fully equipped themselves with the information.
I’d like to finish this blog post by asking for some feedback. What are your experiences of dealing with the support networks for your child, or perhaps for yourself? Were there some major roadblocks you came up against when fighting for your right to education? I’m really interested to hear the stories of some others and I’d love to get a bit of conversation going, especially for something as vital as this topic.