Victoria White: No right to make a child’s difference disappear

Victoria White: No right to make a child’s difference disappear
There will be no special schools or even special units for disabled students

Under the ‘inclusion’ model, disabled children, no matter what their disability, would be mainstreamed with all the rest of the children, writes Victoria White

WHAT is “inclusion”?

Is it about us or “them”? Who are “they”?

In this context they are disabled children whose painstakingly built educational provision looks marked for demolition.

The new educational model proposed by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) will be fully “inclusive”, which means there will be no special schools or even special units for disabled students. Special needs assistants will become “inclusion assistants” and be, as the NCSE puts it, “front-loaded” into schools according to size and issues identified by staff “observation”, rather than on the basis of specific diagnoses.

Diagnoses are hard to get. That’s what needs to change, not the entire basis for deploying so-called inclusion assistants. The fear is that the number of assistants will be capped no matter what concentrations of particular disabilities present in a particular school.

Who asked for these changes?

Not the parents, it seems.

Certainly not the kids with special needs, not one of whom expressed a desire to leave special school and go to a mainstream school when visited by the NCSE in preparation for its “Policy Advice on Special Schools and Classes: An Inclusive Education for an Inclusive Society”?

Not the teachers in those special schools, some of whom have contacted me since I first wrote on this issue here in November and are aghast at the prospect of special ed being shut down.

Geraldine Prendeville is principal of Scoil Aislinn in Blackrock, Cork, which provides education to 36 children with autism from mild to profound. She has 40 years’ experience of teaching in special schools including two schools for the intellectually disabled. Far from believing special schools to have passed their sell-by date, she wants to expand, ideally in a newly-built facility and to teach vocational and life skills, like carpentry and laundry.

Her kids have what are called “complex needs”: Along with autism they may have other issues, such as obsessive compulsive disorder or chronic anxiety. Some of them display what’s termed “challenging behaviour”: Some can be physically or verbally violent, through no fault of their own.

At times a staff to pupil ratio of 2:1 is required; some of the children need to be toilet-trained, for instance.

They are at Scoil Aislinn because they can’t hack the environment of a mainstream school. To force them to do so, says Ms Prendeville, is to deny them their human rights.

Ironically, the NCSE argues that special schools and units are in contravention of the UN’s Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities because they are “not compatible with the UN’s view of inclusion”. This view is based on ideology, not experience.

Emir Duffy, principal of Cara Junior School for children with autism and mild to moderate intellectual disability in Cork’s Mayfield, has pupils in her school who were not able to cope in an ASD unit in a mainstream school, let alone a mainstream classroom.

She showed me Cara’s beautiful new school building, designed specifically to cater for the sensory needs of her students. The detail is as fine as sound-absorbing tiles, extra wide circulation spaces, windowsills set at an angle so they cannot be climbed on, windows sand-blasted so that

kids

children are not disturbed by cars coming into the school. The doors cannot be locked from the inside and can open out as well as in, much to the surprise of any child who lies against them to keep them closed.

“If you change the design, you change the behaviour,” she says.

That said, staff in special schools such as hers face huge challenges and one of her staff is out on leave following an assault.

As she says, the fact that their sensory system is impaired is often not taken into account in school placement. A child with autism in a flimsy prefab classroom can be “driven mad” by the sound of the rest of the school community playing in the yard outside.

Ms Duffy speaks of what she calls “situational integration”; the child is in the same place as neurotypical children but is, in fact, not integrated at all.

Ms Prendeville says the NCSE has told her their aim is not “integration” but rather “inclusion” — but if there’s inclusion without integration, what is the point of it?

Again, I am forced to ask, is inclusion for “us”, the non-disabled community, or “them”, who have the disabilities?

There’s a utopian quality about the NCSE’s new “inclusion” policy. You could sing it to the tune of ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to sing!’ They point to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s as part of the inspiration behind New Brunswick’s “inclusion” model of education, which two NCSE officials studied to inform their policy. The problem here is obvious: No skin colour constitutes a disability except one constructed by society; actual disability doesn’t disappear if society changes.

Mild or purely physical disabilities can be rendered unimportant with provisions such as ramps and signing and assistive technology. Significant autism and intellectual disability can’t be.

The “diverse” classrooms the NCSE visited in this country would be torture chambers for the tiny percentage of our young people who have these disabilities to a significant degree.

Fate has already given them enough challenges; it is our job to lessen those we can control. Less challenged children with autism can benefit from going to an autism unit in a mainstream school, as per the NCSE’s now defunct policy advice of 2011. Rhodri Mears, principal of Midleton Educate Together, has five ASD classes in his school and has achieved two or three successful full integrations in mainstream of children from these classes.

He has also, however, overseen the movement of some children to special schools such as Scoil Aislinn and Cara because even an ASD class in mainstream is too big a challenge for them. He expresses the fear that it will take “a dramatic incident in a school” to make the authorities wake up to the needs of special schools and classes.

“There is”, he says, “a void of definition as to what integration is.” The NCSE’s new inclusion policy is built on this void. Despite the fact that a new special school, Danu, has just opened in West Dublin following a major campaign, the NCSE’s official policy is to phase out special schools and classes, against the wishes of parents, teachers and children. There is no clear indication against special education in their research and though they travelled to Canada, they did not go to the UK where special ed is expanding.

Under the “inclusion” model, disabled children, no matter what their disability, would be mainstreamed with all the rest of the children as if they were no different. They have a right to their difference. We have no right to try to make them disappear.

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