I got into a debate on Twitter today, about the segregation of disabled children into so-called “special schools”. I think some people misunderstood me, so I want to see if I can write out my views a little more clearly. I’m also going to speak only of my personal experience, of having a sister in a segregated school and children in a mainstream school.
I do not believe Segregated Schools are the best option for any child. But, right now, they are often the only option. Or the best out of available options. And that, I think, is a problem.
Right now, the only options available, in Ireland at least, are segregation, a special “unit” (usually only for autistic kids) in a mainstream school, “inclusion” in a mainstream school or home education. And, right now, none of these options are ideal.
Segregation into “special schools” used to be the norm for disabled children. My mother-in-law was a “special needs” teacher. I hate those terms but they’re what is used here so I’ll go with them for this post. She was interviewed by the police a few years ago relating to if she knew anything about the widespread abuse, including sexual, of the children at the school she worked at. She was shocked and horrified, but I fear also very naive. And though there are now better safeguards, disabled children still get abused in these places.
Another problem with these schools feeds into more generalized isolation and segregation of disabled children. My sister went to a Special School. She enjoyed her time there and did well. But she still complains that she never got to meet any non-disabled children, except for the few friends from the neighborhood that she’d had since childhood. At the time, it was the best school available to her. But since then, the school we had originally wanted to send her to, where all her other siblings went, has become much more adapted to and inclusive of disabled children. Unfortunately this happened about 10 years too late for her.
Some schools in Ireland have what are known as “ASD units”. These are segregated classrooms for autistic children, but within a mainstream school building. Some of the children spend time in mainstream classes, but have the option to move back into the unit if they need to. I’m not really sure how good these units are, as I’ve no personal experience of them. They may suit some children. But I do know some teachers in them don’t have specialized training and I’ve heard mixed reports from parents. Plus, there simply aren’t enough of them. My children’s school doesn’t have one, for example.
So, moving on to my experience of having disabled children in a mainstream school in Ireland. The first thing I need to say is that their school “does not cater for” those with complex medical needs. Yes, they have a handful of kids with ADHD and dyspraxia. A few hearing impaired children. Asthmatics. Diabetics. Autistics. The only “visibly” disabled children are the girl with the bright purple hearing aids, and the little boy who uses a wheelchair. So, already, we can see that a lot of disabled children are excluded.
And, although the school does it’s best, even the few disabled children in the school aren’t fully ‘included’. There are staffing issues, with support teachers coming and going, and having their hours cut. There are lots of accommodations that could be made, but aren’t. There are lots of small things that could be improved but aren’t. And almost none of the teachers have specialist training.
A lot of disabled children in Ireland end up dropping out of formal schooling altogether and end up being educated at home. This can work well, but one parent needs to be available to do this and many families simply cannot afford it. And again, unless the supports are there, the child, and indeed the parent, can become isolated from society.
So, the above are the current educational options for disabled children in Ireland. And I’m not happy about that. I have a vision, a dream if you will, of fully inclusive education for disabled children. Imagine, if you will, a school with al, the supports available to Special Schools, but that all children, abled and disabled, went to. With more than adequate staffing levels. Where every teacher was trained in teaching disabled children. Where there were lifts and ramps and “changing places” type toilets with hoists. Where there were sensory rooms and quiet areas. Where there were small class sizes and teachers could teach to ability of each child. Where there was investment in the mental and emotional well being of all children. Where bullying was simply not a thing. This would benefit all disabled children, both diagnosed and not yet diagnosed, as well as benefitting abled children. A fully inclusive environment for all.
Al the moment, no such school exists. Not any I’m aware of at least. I realize it’s a pipe dream, a utopian vision if you will. But I believe that we should still fight for truly inclusive education for all children. It might not happen in my lifetime, but maybe it will for future generations.
And so, I’m not on some crusade to ban segregated schools. It’s simply not realistic, and in fact would be cruel, to close them down and force the kids into mainstream schools that simply are not prepared for them. This is what happened when adult institutions were closed down before any provisions had been made for those inside. We need to develop a culture of inclusive schools first, and then hopefully more parents will be able to choose to send their children to them.
Most parents are only trying to do the best for their children. They pick what is the best out of the available options. What needs to happen is that the range of available options is increased, not decreased. And then maybe more disabled children will be able to benefit from being included in society.