Friday, 30 May 2014

Sorry, this school's not for you!

I was brought up in Leicester, which at that time, I recall being told, was the city with a higher proportion of people whose families were originally from India than any other city outside India itself.  I've no idea whether that was true, but my classes were culturally-diverse, the radial roads out of the city were a blaze of sari shops and curry houses and I loved living in such an interesting city.  I think that formative experience has made me quite colour-blind and I'm delighted that my children go to a school with lots of diversity too.

But there was nobody in my own primary school who had a physical disability, as far as I can remember, and certainly not at my secondary school.  I didn't know any disabled children.  There was one much older girl down the road who used a wheelchair, but I don't recall ever speaking to her.  Despite doing A-levels in science and science degrees I don't remember ever being taught about the causes of disability, some of the common disabilities or how the world around us can be made more inclusive.  I now recognise that some children I thought at the time were odd or very shy probably had autism to some extent.  It was only when I was invited to became a governor in a special needs school (before Immy was born) that I started to understand about inclusion and disability equality.

When I began to look into school options for Imogen it was obvious quite early on that things were not going to be plain sailing.  The first head teacher we met made it clear that since Immy had cerebral palsy she would be much better off in a "unit" attached to the school.  She didn't know anything about Immy's academic and social abilities at that point...  and we didn't give her the opportunity to find out.   The difficulties we've faced since then have all been around getting the local authority to fund the right level of support, and two big battles, which frankly astonished me, to get disabled toilets built.  Immy's school has been brilliant though - she's been welcomed, valued, supported and well cared for there and is making great progress.  

I began to realise that lots of our schools in Cardiff did not have basic levels of disability access in place, and when I asked for some data on this I was told there were none - and instead I was sent 120 access audits on every school in Cardiff, most very out of date.  To cut a long story short, driven by anger and frustration I spent weeks of my own time building up a bank of knowledge on the wheelchair-accessibility of schools across Wales that has captured the interest of the Children's Commissioner for Wales and resulted in his office carrying out a review, which is currently underway. I've also corresponded with politicians and officials at UK, Wales and Local Authority level - and exposed a huge amount of non-compliance with legislation. If you want to read about my work, I've added a presentation to one of my pages HERE.  There are some case studies at the end that are particularly worth a read.  Few people realise how many children end up being separated from their siblings and peers simply because a school is not accessible. Of course not all children with disabilities will thrive in a mainstream classroom, but I believe that every school should be able to cater for children who cannot climb stairs.  

"Why has this situation been allowed to continue?" you may ask.  This is probably the slide that best answers your question.

The root of the problem is that school buildings were made exempt, more than ten years ago, from the duty to make reasonable adjustments that applies to other public buildings. Schools and local authorities are instead bound by accessibility planning duties which they pay little attention to, on the whole.

The even deeper root of the problem is that children are generally not seen as having rights, and few people stop to think about how it feels to be told you can't attend a school with your friends and siblings, or can never enter huge areas of a school.  Immy has only been upstairs at school once when I helped her up the stairs to see the 6 classrooms that she would otherwise be working her way through as she progresses to year 6.  And that was a hugely emotional experience for her.  Her classmates are not getting that "progression" experience either - but at least they can pop upstairs on occasions.  Take a look at the "Equality" rhetoric and bureaucracy in governments and local authorities. It's all about the workplace, glass ceilings and public transport.  All important stuff, but children don't get much of a look-in. To me it is blindingly obvious that if you want to make the world a more inclusive and accepting place, and avoid repeating the awful tragedies that result when people turn against those who are different - tragedies within living memory across Europe - then we have to expose our children to diversity.  Just teaching children to be inclusive and kind is of very limited value - rubbing shoulders day by day with children from different backgrounds and with different abilities has a much greater and life-long impact.  

Disability hate crime is an awful and terrifying thing - the prospect of which is a bit of a recurring nightmare for me - but I think it's far less likely that any child in Immy's school will ever be a perpetrator.

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