Published in the Irish Times, February 2nd and accompanied by this article about an all inclusive school.

Fee paying schools need a shift in thinking.

In responding to the two articles in the Irish Times on December 8th 2009, the question we should be asking is why so many professionals involved in education behave in this unacceptable way.  The answer is that professional staff and parents see the child with the disability as the problem and do not understand the role that the school environment plays in preventing the child from learning.  Many children with disabilities are being inadvertently discriminated against in Irish schools because of attitudes and unchallenged thinking about disability.   What are these attitudes?  What do principals, staff and parents think about the ability of students with disability?  It is nearly a cliché, but they see the DISability  not the child.  In schools where parents are paying high fees for an excellent education,  disability is perceived as a threat to a concept of the gold star student.  This is a myth and needs to be challenged as it is unacceptable and leads to discrimination and exclusion of very able students.

There are many myths and stereotypes about disability, the danger is where policy and decision making is based on these beliefs. Children with disabilities can learn as much as other children when given the right tools and learning environment.  Technology can make a significant difference and resources such as the electronic textbooks and voice activated software would enable the child to keep up with the work of the class independently.  Yet the reality is that children who are blind do not get textbooks in real time, children with dyslexia do not learn how to use technology which would transform their learning experience and enable them to be independent learners.

Ignoring the talents of these children does not make economic sense as many children with dyslexia, (aprox. 8% of the population) have the very skills employers need to get us all out of the current economic mess. The economic reality of hi-tech jobs in a fast changing world means that employers need problem solvers, creative thinkers and technical experts.   Many children with disabilities and specific learning difficulties have these skills in spades.  They are great out of the box thinkers, they see the world differently , think laterally and make great leaps in understanding, seeing links and connectedness others do not see, and many highly motivated having to negotiate an unwelcoming world .

It is unacceptable that schools should get away with restrictive practices. But changing attitudes takes time and deliberate, directed effort, the old carrot and stick approach. The Department of Education and Science who is responsible for ensuring equality of education for all children should implement a quota system for schools that is linked to funding based on reflecting the mix in the community including children with disabilities. The Department of Education and Science also is responsible for ensuring there are sufficient supports such as technology in the classroom and that teachers are trained to use them.

The teachers unions also have a key role to play in leading this cultural change and could review their block on the introduction of Individual Needs Assessments as recommended by the  National  Council of Special Education and embedded in the Disability Act since 2005.  Needs assessment is a systematic way to identify the  support requirements of children with disabilities and is a critical step in ensuring that resources are used effectively and targeted to the dealing with the impact of the individual’s childs disability.

Ann Heelan, HDip in Education, MA Education

Executive Director