During this series of articles, we have explored what it is like to live with a disability, we have also explored disability and parenthood. In this article, we are going to explore disability & education. What can school and education be like for a person with a disability?
Disability & Education -Figures
Before I share some of my experiences of disability and education, we need to understand the complexity of disability and employment.
Disability & education, at first glance, does not make for encouraging reading. The disability employment gap has been the subject of many research papers, Government approaches and a whole range of debates.
During the period 2013 -2019, the disability employment gap has reduced. Figures available from the Office for National Statistics show that just over half (53.2%) of people with a disability were in employment compared to 81.8% of non -disabled people. On the surface, we might think that this increase over a six-year period is reason to celebrate. Just hang fire on the champagne for a moment.
Recent figures on the disability employment gap highlighted the following:
-The proportion of people with a disability who had no qualifications was more than two and a half times the proportion of non-disabled people, at 16.1% compared with 6.0% in 2019.
–Men with a disability were three times less likely to attain qualifications than non-disabled men
-The employment rate for people with severe or specific learning difficulties was the lowest rate of any impairment at 17.6%
My Experience of Education
My first day at school was a little unusual in many ways, for a start I was followed by a television crew who wanted to document this huge moment in my life. Years earlier, I had been featured in some television and newspaper interviews that centered around me attending the world famous Peto Institute for Conductive Education in Budapest.
I can assure you, The Peto Institute was a tough place, this was not Butlins for the Disabled as I had first thought!
During January, 1988, I was even part of a debate in the House of Commons. Sending me to Budapest for Conductive Education, it was hoped, would improve my mobility. Primary school for me was a pretty happy time, I had groups of friends, the school was supportive and did not seem to me at least, to make an issue out of my having Cerebral Palsy.
Disability & Education -Limitations
Secondary school was a whole different experience. I went to a school a mainstream secondary school which had a unit for children with disabilities.
Up until this point, I had always been surrounded by positive attitudes and a “can do” approach to my disability. It was only when I entered secondary school with the “support” of the disability unit that I would come to realise just how much of an impact other people’s negative belief systems can have. Far from being supportive, many of the teaching assistants and staff in this specialist unit seemed to want to limit the ambitions of students with a disability, constantly using phrases like “you won’t be able to do that” or, “that activity is for children who do not have limitations”
Looking back at it now, I think the school must have had our home telephone number on speed dial. I lost count of the number of times a phone call home would be made to mention how I had been rude, sarcastic, or simply refused to accept what some members of staff were telling me.
Here’s the thing, I wasn’t (always) trying to be difficult. I simply wanted the teacher to explain and justify their reasons for wanting to limit my abilities.
When it came to selecting my GCSE qualifications and handing my choices in I was met with laughter when I said that I wanted to do as many as possible. “Richard, the simple fact is we normally only expect disabled students to get 1-2 GCSE qualifications, how about we scale this down a bit?” shortly after this exchange another call to my long suffering parents was made about my “need to challenge authority” and, how as a senior member of staff they did not appreciate being called a complete idiot. I can still see his face raging with anger to this day!
Here Come the Bullies
One of the other realities of joining secondary school is that you become more aware of just how cruel children can be. Using drawing pins to puncture your wheelchair tyres, locking you in the toilets, doing impressions of you walking and that is all before we even consider some of the words and names that would be used. My quick witted humour and ability to make teven the most determined of bullies regret picking on me would serve me well. I became well known for my 1 liners that would floor a bully in seconds. I can picture all the armchair psychologists saying, well that was a defence mechanism- You are absolutely correct!
Having survived the period of bullying, I just took it as part of growing up. What I still struggle with though is the sense that the education system felt as it wanted me to fail, it wanted me not to dream of having a career, not to think about the future and to simply accept that disability & education did not go together.
If we are to move forward with the disability employment gap, I firmly believe we need to tackle disability & education. I am hopeful that the current education system and provision for people with disabilities has improved over the last 20 or so years. If we are going to support people with disabilities into employment let’s level the playing field in terms of the opportunities afforded to them and increase the rate of formal qualifications. Many of the teaching staff I met at secondary school could have benefited from some disability awareness training.
Sixth Form Education & Disability
After I completed all 10 of my GCSE qualifications (if you think that teacher was red faced before, you should have seen him on results day) I decided to go to sixth form but, I knew I needed to change to a different school were their view of disabilities did not seem to be stuck somewhere in the 1940’s. What an amazing time I had at sixth form. As soon as I went to look around the school I was met by staff who had a positive outlook, and who believed in me. They could see past a physical disability and did all they could to support me.
Not only were the staff fantastic but, all of a sudden I was surrounded by students who were far more inclusive and, who never once bullied me because of my disability. Never being asked for I.D, not having to queue up to get into a nightclub, and being given priority at theme parks seemed to be an asset. I was included in everything, if the sixth form were planning a day out or something, instead “this is not for people with your limitations” I was met with an attitude of we can do it, we will just have to figure out how!
The only downside was that if the teachers came to the pub at lunchtime to roundup the pupils, you were almost certainly going to be caught as everyone else had shot out the door on seeing the teacher approach. My time at sixth form helped to shape my positive attitude and meant that I would go on to university. My time at university may form part of a future article.
We need to make disability awareness training more of a focus for anyone who is going to be teaching. Having a positive attitude that focuses on what a pupil can do, rather than focusing on limitations has to be a step in the right direction. I shudder to think what my life might be like now if I had allowed the narrow minded approach of some teaching staff to impact me, and to crush my aspirations. Some of the teachers I met during my time at school were incerdable and would fight my corner, to those individuals I will be forever grateful.
Much of what I read places the blame for the disability employment gap with organisations and businesses.
Whilst there is still a lot of work to be done around inclusion and inclusive recruitment, we cannot simply just blame businesses. In reality, the disability employment gap is a complex topic no individual has all of the answers in terms of how to solve it. We may never solve it completely but, is our education system doing all that it can to empower young people with disabilities?
Tune into a Podcast
In a recent interview, Richard Shakespeare, Managing Director of Workplace Diversity Solutions talks about the importance of moving beyond tick box mentalities and shares his tips. Click here to tune into the Podcast.