Something inside so strong — why Sarah is an extra special student

CONGRATULATIONS, Sarah Carroll! An A, three Bs and 2 Cs. It was a great Junior Cert by any standards, and it just goes to show that you can do everything you set your heart on.

Sarah is from Dublin. A 16-year-old, just like her peers, she had to endure the same anxious wait for her results, and wasn't able to celebrate them like her friends did because she had chickenpox when the results came out. I'm guessing her family has quite a celebration lined up when Sarah feels up to it.

There's a few reasons to celebrate. Sarah has Downs Syndrome, and that makes her one of the very few people in Ireland to have progressed, academically, as far as she has. Again, I'm guessing she has got a lot further than anyone predicted she would, except maybe those closest to her. All the more reason for them to be proud.

Because Sarah has once again shown, and not for the first time, that disability is just one more thing to overcome in life.

It's not the first time she has done it either. Sarah was a gold medallist in the Special Olympics World Games when they were held in Dublin in 2003. Like countless others then, she astounded the rest of us by demonstrating the kind of courage and skill that people with Downs Syndrome (and other disabilities) aren't supposed to have but do.

I don't know Sarah, and that's why I can only guess how tough and determined she must be to get where she is now. And I'm guessing that Sarah is lucky, too. Not just gutsy and brave, but surrounded by a lot of care and a lot of effort. According to the newspapers who reported her achievement, Sarah has a special needs assistant who has been a huge support to her, and undoubtedly she has a lot of support at home.

And, it seems, at school. Integration has worked for Sarah. It doesn't always. A few years ago I was at a meeting of parents discussing the subject of integration. One woman said, "my son is integrated they gave him a job in the local supermarket. You can actually see him any lunchtime if you're driving past the back of the shop. There's a bunch of lads kicking football, and there's one young fella sitting alone on the steps, eating his sandwiches and watching the other lads play. That's my integrated son."

That's the way it was, for years and years. There was a string of buzz words, a whole series of fashions in the education and development of people with intellectual disabilities. When I was younger, they had to be "normalised" (what an insulting phrase that was). Then integration was all the rage but of course it was never backed up with help or resources. Or changes in attitudes, for that matter. The integrated child was often the loneliest child in the classroom. While it wasn't that unusual for kids with Downs Syndrome, for example, to be accommodated in 'normal' classes, it never occurred to any of the 'normal' kids that the boy or girl with Downs Syndrome might appreciate some help with homework, or a phone call to make them part of the gang, or any other sign of friendship outside the confines of the classroom.

A lot of that has changed now. Over the years there has been a gradual breaking down of barriers. The real, fundamental change is the recognition of potential, the realisation that people with disabilities are capable of a lot more. In fact, in my experience, the sky is the limit. There is genuinely no good reason why people with a wide range of intellectual disabilities shouldn't and couldn't achieve everything they set out to.

And of course the barriers placed in the way of other disabilities are a reflection of our attitudes towards them. It still astonishes me that when people are subconsciously blamed for their disabilities, there isn't more of an outcry. We still live in an era when a publican can get away with barring people with cerebral palsy from his pub because "there's an insurance problem." Insurance problem, my foot. The truth is that some people in pubs feel uncomfortable watching the physical manifestations of a condition, and the so-called insurance problem is invented to prevent their discomfort.

It's easy enough to quote examples of discrimination against people with disabilities, but the good news is that at least in the education system that discrimination is beginning to break down. The introduction of special needs assistants is one sign and we can expect Sarah Carroll to have a lot of academic rivals in the future if the system of special needs assistants is properly developed and managed.

Another positive development is the establishment in Trinity College of a National Institute for Intellectual Disability. Led by a remarkable woman from New Zealand called Patricia O'Brien, the institute is dedicated to the proposition that people with an intellectual disability have a place in third-level education too.

Next month 20 of them will begin courses at the institute, and they will in time graduate with their qualifications alongside every other student. And in the process new curricular methods will be developed and disseminated, with the aim of encouraging more and more third-level colleges to open their doors to people with intellectual disability.

The future for Sarah Carroll and her friends and colleagues ought to look a lot brighter. For every employer who discriminates, consciously or unconsciously, there are more who realise that people with disabilities have the same talents and skills as others, once the facilities exist to enable them to express them.

It's not that long ago since a lot of people with disabilities weren't allowed hold bank accounts in their own names. Now I know people in the Bank of Ireland, for example, who are steadily building careers based on their abilities, rather than their disabilities. Doesn't Sarah's achievement highlight even more the stupidity and narrow-mindedness of the Supreme Court? In their infamous ruling in the Jamie Sinnott case, when the High Court judgement in the case was appealed to them by the attorney general, they limited the right to education to people under the age of 18. After the age of 18, people like Sarah Carroll will get whatever education the State decides she should. Despite her incredible achievements so far, her right to go on will be ended by an arbitrary court decision.

But I'm guessing that there is not much that can stop the Sarah Carrolls of this world. She clearly has the courage, determination and skill to be whatever she wants to be. Like many of her colleagues, she has demonstrated the truth of the song, originally written about apartheid "the higher you build your barriers, the taller I become because there's something inside so strong "

Education is, of course, the key to tearing down those barriers, to enabling people to grow as tall as they need to be. And that's why Sarah Carroll deserves to be congratulated not just for what she has achieved herself, but for pushing the door a little further open to others.

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