Earlier this week I attended the launch of a project to record for posterity oral history recordings of disabled people talking about their experiences of school, called How Was School? Organised by the British Library oral history department and the campaigning group Alliance For Inclusive Education, funded thanks to a Heritage Lottery Grant, the goal was to ensure that the memories of school and education of generations of disabled people were not lost to history. I am very proud to say that I played a part in this project, acting as an interviewer. I was lucky that my previous experience as a broadcaster and journalist came in really handy, although oral history is very different medium than any other form of media recording, and I had the chance to travel the country meeting and chatting with some amazing people. I got to spend many hours interviewing people about their school days, hearing about the good and the bad, and always came away from those interviews impressed with the lives that these people had built for themselves, even though they all seemed to be really under whelmed by their schooling.
My first school photo, aged 5 (1970)
For some reason all of the people I met with had attended what are normally called Special Schools, or schools whose intake are only children with disabilities. All of their stories were revelations to me as I attended mainstream schools throughout my entire school career, even though I have been disabled since birth. The over riding theme of each of the interviews was a deep feeling from my interviewees that they had missed out on something. Whether it was a good education, experiencing the outside world, not feeling different and excluded or just being a "normal" kid, all of the people I met with really felt as if their schooling was of a lesser standard and had left them at a disadvantage in their future life. Don't get me wrong, all of the people I met with had successful careers and were happy with their lives. They were just absolutely sure that the special school system had failed them in some way.
And that's the outcome of being separated, isn't it? If you don't have the opportunity to experience something as everyone else does, then how can you know what that experience is like? My parents fought tooth and nail to send me to a mainstream school, which was no mean feat back in 1970. I was the first disabled child to attend my infants school, junior school, high school, 6th form and art college. It was only when I looked into university that I found that no university, running the course I was interested in, could take a student that used a wheelchair. Of course things have changed greatly since then, but this was back in 1984 and I did want to study fashion design. I would have been OK if I had seen a future in business or health care, but it was the 80's and I did have amazing hair. So I gave up on academia and instead I followed my dream of working in the media; so here I am today.
Throughout my career at the coal face of being a media luvvie I have been told time and time again that "it's all right for you, you're really confident" when meeting people who are amazed that a disabled person has managed to have a career in an industry that is infamously difficult to get into and also fascinated by perfection. I won't deny that I am a bit of a force of nature when it comes to confidence and I do seem to become the center of attention whenever I enter a room, but this is not something I was born with. In fact anyone who remembers me from my school days will inform you that I was a shy, quiet studious little boy who only stood out because he was the only disabled kid in school. Well that and that fact that when I hit 14 I discovered Gary Numan and started wearing eyeliner to school... school rules stated no make up for girls but included nothing about boys, so a few of us futurists took advantage of that for as long as the loop hole existed. But I digress.
What attending a mainstream school, with pupils of all colours, creeds, sexes and sexualities but who were all non-disabled, did give me was the knowledge that we are all the same under the skin. We are all strong or weak, healthy or sick, clever or not so clever or combinations of which ever facet of humanity you might want to to choose. Yes I came away from school knowing full well that my disability did not make me any less or more than anyone else, disabled or not. Well with that, and a handful of O and A levels plus a nice little qualification in fashion design and art.
At college, with amazing hair (1982)
This knowledge that being disabled does not really make you different from the non-disabled people around you is the one element that all of my interviewees felt was missing from the lives. However much the experiences they had since leaving school helped them to understand the true nature of disability, their schooling reinforced the feeling that they were very different from non-disabled people. This why I think it is so essential to send disabled children, whether they have physical impairments or learning disabilities, into the mainstream educational system. I know that many parents of disabled children argue that their child is being bullied or feels excluded in some way in the mainstream, but unfortunately so do many non-disabled children. The answer is not to take them out of mainstream and segregate them in educational ghettos, it's to ensure that all schools promote true equality in their teaching methods and educational practice. Not many people would imagine that to prevent bullying for another reason, a child should just be removed and placed into a school filled only with people like them. Yet this is educational policy around disability, even today.
So come on folks, let's integrate all of our children into one school system. All our kids should go to the same school, grow up knowing that there are all types of people in this world and that they are just as worthy and worthwhile as everyone else in our society. It worked for me, and it's about time we saw it as the answer to creating a fairer, more equal world for the future.