Julie O'Leary: Living a life outside of your disability

 Julie O'Leary, who has cerebral palsy and has come through the education system, agrees with research by Conor McGuckin, above, that shows students and parents need supports. Picture: Des Barry

WHEN we reach four or five years old, we automatically get drafted into the ranks of learners. I vividly remember my first day of school.

I was delighted because my parents made school an exciting prospect. I did not know at the tender age of four in 1989, that I was embarking on a path less travelled by. I have cerebral palsy, a physical disability impacting significantly on my legs and to a lesser extent my hands and I was going to my local mainstream primary school, which was largely unheard of at the time.

I was oblivious to the significant transition point of starting primary school, but when it came to moving from primary school to secondary school, I was acutely aware of what was happening. I knew the world was going to get much bigger very quickly. Fitting in and keeping up was a key concern for me, a concern reflected in recent research commissioned by the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) on transitions between primary and post primary school. A range of research was presented and discussed at the NCSE’s research conference which took place yesterday in Croke Park. I gave my experience at the conference as a person with a disability who has come through the system.

After my first few weeks in post- primary school, I wanted to leave; I was isolated and overwhelmed and uncertain how to navigate my new social world. At the time, there was no real support network for students and families. The NCSE did not yet exist, so I did not know where to turn. With the support of my parents, I persevered and by the end of first year I was well settled and similar to what is reported in recent research “it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be”.

The six years I spent in Coláiste Choilm, Ballincollig, Co Cork, turned out to be some of the best I could wish for and I would go back in a heartbeat.

My parents played a vital role in my educational success. Like many parents today, information was vital for them. They didn’t want to interfere too much and cause trouble or isolation for me but I needed their help too. In planning for higher education they were central. I feel most parents are torn between supporting their child and enabling them to develop as individuals.

Professionals play a key role in providing information and effective communication to families at every turn.

Research by Conor McGuckin from Trinity College Dublin and others, which was presented at the conference yesterday, explores student experiences in transition to further and higher education. It recommends that students and those supporting them should begin planning for that transition during junior cycle of secondary school. While studying for my Junior Cert, I was worrying that I would not be granted extra time to complete the state exams. College was not even on my radar yet.

Thankfully, things have developed hugely over the intervening years. Students now have the NCSE and vital support from Special Educational Needs Organisers (SENOs) who allocate additional care and education supports to schools and provide information to parents and advise on educational options.

We must keep enquiring into the experiences of our students to understand how we can support them effectively to become valued citizens in society. Transition points are critical for young people.

I began dialogue with UCC in fifth year to figure out how I could succeed there. I agree with McGuckin et al that guidance teachers should be given the opportunity to obtain continuous professional development to support students with special educational needs. The system is complicated and it takes manoeuvring to navigate it.

I was granted my university place through the Direct Access Route to Education (DARE). After Leaving Cert, I was 20 points short to study applied psychology and the impact of my cerebral palsy was taken into account. Without this accommodation, my story would have been very different.

People with physical and sensory disabilities are still very much under- represented in higher and further education. I feel, as recommended by the McGuckin research, that the DARE route should be reviewed and widened to encompass further education routes and in some cases allow for greater leeway of points.

Today, I have an honours degree from UCC and a first-class masters from NUI Galway. Each set of letters after my name proves that I can contribute to society, but more importantly, the journey enabled me to find lifelong friends, social experiences and a life much bigger than disability.

Even if I never sat an exam, being in school and university made me a rounded individual with perspective and ambition. I want so many more students to be supported so that we can level the playing field and achieve our dreams.

* Julie O’Leary is a member of the National Council for Special Education’s consultative forum

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