By Jenny Kerr
Choosing the best school for your child is one of the biggest decisions a parent/guardian has to make. Add to that the responsibility of finding a school that is willing to provide the necessary services and accessible facilities that child will need if they have a disability. These are the things parents/guardians of children with disabilities have to consider on a daily basis, alongside the factor of their child’s academic and social ability.
However, how much of a say in this decision do students with disabilities have if they are, in the eyes of the law, old enough to make their own decisions about important events in their lives including their education. Does the factor of their child having a disability, cloud a parent/guardians’ judgment when they are deciding whether their child should have a mainstream or special education?
In my own opinion, if a child is capable of expressing their thoughts and feelings on other important issues in their lives, then their opinion should be considered when it comes to where they wish to attend school. These decisions should not be based on disability or academic ability alone.
Research has shown that, until the 1950’s, it was recommended by the State that people with all types and levels of disability were placed in services such as the St Vincent’s Home for Mentally Defective Children.
This was due to a report published in 1936 which stated that children with special needs were not to be educated alongside those who did not have a disability because, it claimed, it was “damaging” to the education of those able bodied children.
Thankfully though, in the decades that followed, things began to change for the better. By the mid-eighties the idea of integrating children with disabilities into mainstream schools had begun to emerge. In 1993 the Special Educational Needs Review Committee (SERC) report was published. The report recognised that the majority of parents of special needs children felt that their children should be educated in a mainstream school.
Issues around educating children with special needs continued to arise in the early 1990’s and 2000’s
With all this in mind, I decided to interview students with disabilities who attended both mainstream and special schools to see if anything had changed over the last few decades in terms of perceptions and attitudes towards them in the education system. I was amazed at what I heard. The people that I spoke to who had attended special schools told me that they were only placed into special schools because they were told they would be more suited to that form of education due to their disability, even if their disability did not affect their academic ability. However they also told me that since they finished attending those schools, things have improved in many ways. In saying that, they told me that if they had been placed in mainstream education, they would have been able to study a range of different subjects that were not available within the special education system.
Those that I spoke to who had attended mainstream schools, told me that they were placed into that form of education because, at the time, their parents felt that their disability did not affect their academic ability. Therefore it was decided that, with the help of the appropriate equipment and services provided by the Department of Education, their child deserved the chance to receive mainstream education, just like any of their fellow able bodied students.
In some instances, however, the Department of Education made the decision about a person’s schooling depending on where they lived and whether there would be a school with the appropriate facilities nearby.
After interviewing the students about their experiences, I decided to check whether there was any point of law which would help parents in deciding whether to send their children with a disability to a mainstream school or a special school. I was shocked to discover that nowhere within the Education Act 2000 did it give any definitive answer to what the “certain minimum education” for students with disabilities should be. With no actual legislation or official policy in place, it appears to be up to both the parent/guardian and the school to decide which school the student with disability should/should not attend
Speaking as a person with a disability who was wholly educated in mainstream schools and who only has second hand knowledge of special schools. I can’t help but feel that although the education system has improved, there still needs to be more done to encourage students with a disability to interact with each other and with students with no disability. I hope that whoever reads this article will help to provide a service where students with various abilities can come together and share their abilities with each other rather than being separated into different services due to their “lack of abilities”