By: Daniella Jade Lowe
In this article, my friend and I are going to share our experiences in dealing with both mental and physical disability in the school.
Dealing with physical disability in my life has been interesting and quite a learning experience for my family and I. My educational career has been interesting because I’ve lived and studied in Bermuda and England.
Bermuda deals with disability in schools differently to England. England is more advanced, probably because it is much bigger and there’s more access to resources.
For example, I attended private Nursery and Preschool in Bermuda, because it was hard to find someone to take disabled kids for liability reasons. There are currently no charities dedicated to Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus in Bermuda. ‘Teach Us All!’
From primary school to high school, if you claim disability, I got Paraeducators nowadays known as shadow teachers in Bermuda. In Bermuda, I also got extra exam time, an exam scribe, a separate room and exam invigilator. I experienced the same in England.
During my first year of primary school, my mother visited everyday just to make sure that the school was doing their job. However, the principal threatened to put a restraining order on her, so she stopped.
In England, exam scribes and note takers aren’t expected to know anything about the subjects, they’re just expected to make notes and write exams for the student. This holds the students accountable for their own education and success. Students must choose between extra time or an exam scribe, not both to prevent cheating. These exam scribes and notetakers come from an external agency called Clearlinks. Clearlinks employs them, not the university. Students also get Study Coaches and specialist equipment. Ergonomic Assessments are also required for wheelchair users.
During my educational career, there was one recurring issue that I encountered at every school I attended. This was ‘the right to an education’.
The Human Rights Act protects the right to education within all existing educational institutions. It applies to primary, secondary and higher education. So why did my parents have to fight to make sure I got into mainstream, public education?
Why were there some teachers at the schools that I attended, who refused to teach me simply because they disagreed with my rights to be there?
As someone who has a physical disability, I never understood this. Besides, the Human Rights Act 1981 including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights applies to Bermuda too.
My high school years were quite tricky. In Bermuda, there were two public high schools to choose from. One high school was wheelchair accessible from its inception, whereas the other one wasn’t. I was hoping to attend the wheelchair accessible high school because it was easier to get around, however I went to the alternative high school because even though the one I wanted had easy access, integration was a problem. ‘Teach Us All!’
I felt this was unfair because I was marked down for attendance and my class participation was affected, especially when there was a wheelchair accessible alternative. In relation to specialist equipment, my parents and I invested in a Garaventa Stair Trac from Canada, which was designed to get me up and down staircases. The only staircase it wasn’t compatible with were spiral ones.
Fortunately, after the first year, I transitioned to a newly refurbished and wheelchair accessible building equipped with ramps, lifts and flat surfaces. This made attending classes a lot easier and improved my attendance record and class participation. I was in a sticky situation where I was spoiled for choice. There are only two public high schools to choose from in Bermuda. The high school that I attended was formerly nowhere near wheelchair accessible, but I was integrated from day one. However, the alternative high school was wheelchair accessible from the beginning but they wouldn’t integrate me, so I would’ve ended up in a special class/programme. My parents wanted me to be educated as an integrated student in wheelchair accessible schools from the start of my educational career.
After high school, my first year of college was quite stressful and intense. I was enrolled to complete A-Levels. I had just moved from Bermuda to England after graduating from high school. I had to familiarise myself with a new education system and a new environment. The teachers weren’t as understanding or empathetic towards my educational background, learning styles or needs. The A-Level programme was quite competitive where some lecturers only put their best cohort of students up for January and May exams leaving the weaker students out, while other lecturers put a whole class forward and let them ‘wing it’ for the experience.
On this particular course, I felt discriminated against because, unlike the rest of my lecturers, my English Literature didn’t give me a shot at a mock exam in preparation for the real exams. She told me that I wasn’t working at the ‘A-Level standard.’ In response to this, I complained to the Directorate of the college with an unsuccessful outcome.
Alternatively, dealing with mental disability is different. My friend’s biggest problems have been, firstly, depression, which university recognised, but I don’t think most people in general have much idea of the impact of their actions and a lot are incapable of being nice, full stop.
According to the Equality Act 2010, depression is classified as a disability, and anyone with it is covered by the Act (https://www.mind.org.uk/media-a/3123/disability-discrimination-2019.pdf). This needs to be reinforced.
Integration in Mainstream School versus Special Education
Even though special education has its place in society, especially for those with severe disabilities, it is better for them to be integrated into the mainstream public education because mainstream qualifications are given more value than special qualifications. Public mainstream colleges and universities recognise mainstream qualifications not special qualifications. Special education may also possibly undermine one’s full potential. ‘Teach Us All!’
For example, I had a Canadian friend in university, who had Asperger’s Syndrome, that went to special school all his life, and had to complete his G.E.D before starting university in England, because his special qualification wasn’t accepted by the university’s standards.
However, when I was in school, I was integrated all throughout my educational career, but two of my subjects like P.E and Maths were modified due to having a physical disability and additional learning difficulties.
Schools are also expected to conduct risks assessments for health and safety reasons. They should also provide a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan in case of any emergencies like fires or flooding. This is what I got during my college and university years.
All schools have some level of a duty of care and can be held responsible for accidents.
I am in full support of integration, but I think the best way to ensure and reinforce this is to provide extensive teacher training. Colleges and Universities in England have Student Councils and Student Unions that include Disability Officers on their teams. Also at the primary school level in Bermuda, there is a PTSA Board. I think PTSA Boards may need to include a special element specifically for disabled students, similar to British colleges and universities’ unions and councils.
Integration should also include modification not accommodation. When a student has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) you’ll likely hear the word accommodation. An accommodation changes how a student learns the material. A modification changes what a student is taught or expected to learn.
Homeschooling is another viable option which may help decrease discrimination and cater to personal needs.
Wheelchair Accessibility: Functioning in Dysfunction
Wheelchair Accessibility and mobility issues are additional problems that wheelchair users face daily. I experienced this many times in Bermuda, especially at school. Access alleviates the amount of limitations and restrictions on wheelchair users. Failing to ensure wheelchair accessibility is neglecting to provide reasonable adjustments. It is like functioning in dysfunction. Fortunately AccessAdvisr helps to tackle this in England. I still think that people must be mindful.
According to the British Government website, anyone can apply for a dropped kerb in England (https://www.gov.uk/apply-dropped-kerb). However, I get really annoyed with drivers who park across dropped kerbs. Dropped kerbs are meant to make it easy for wheelchairs to enter and exit sidewalks. Some drivers even park on top of the sidewalks blocking the walkway. We need to clamp down on this with a fine both in the UK and Bermuda.
So to conclude, I think reassessing wheelchair accessibility, integration and modifications in mainstream public education are needed to improve the way disability is handled in the schools, especially in Bermuda. Schools must become Disability Confident. This is what I suggest in ‘Dealing with Disability in the School.’