Thursday, September 21, 2006

today : I too am shocked and appalled

The news comes to us that Autistic children have a raw deal at school. Apparently the way they are treated is shocking and appalling. Which is true, and all very well.

In my teaching career I have had to teach pupils who have autism across the whole spectrum. I have also taught kids with Downs Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Deafness, Blindness, Nanosomia, Tourettes syndrome, Osteogenesis Imperfecta, Progeria, cancer, sufferers of sexual abuse, sufferers of violent physical abuse, stammering and many and various other conditions and diseases and causes of emotional and social difficulties.

The fact is that the system lets almost all of these people down, often to a hideous degree.

For me the jury is out on whether 'inclusion' is the way to go for children with special needs. All I know is that in its current state it is not working. Years ago, on arrival in the classroom on my first day at work, I encountered a young girl who had a pretty severe visual impairment problem. She was also extremely shy and unconfident. She was the sweetest little thing, underweight, undersized and dressed in obvious cast-offs. She was almost Dickensian. I did nothing to help her; apart from the usual stuff you might try with a shy kid in trying to boost their confidence. However, during my teacher training I had become really interested in literacy and language development and had read up quite a bit on the causes of illiteracy. At age 11, Grace was more or less unable to read or write. As well as teaching her in my English class I was also her form teacher, so it was my responsibility to look after her in school. She struggled.

Over the course of that year I read up more and more on my subject and when I encountered something I didn't previously know about I made sure I read up on it. (more difficult in those days in which I only had a 13,300 modem and the internets were not so well developed). I knew there was something behind Grace's problems and checked her files. She was nominated as Special Needs but the information was vague. Basically she had been flagged as shy, illiterate and a bit slow.

I still did nothing. After all I was busy first year teacher and there was someone paid well in my school to be in charge of Special Needs provision. But one day it struck me what the problem might be. Grace had national health spectacles of the sort that have been around for long enough that Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker could wear them ironically and iconically, and when broken are often fixed with an elastoplast. I myself had some as a child. They came in four colours. Black or tortoiseshell for boys and powder blue or pink for girls. Grace's were the powder blue model. They suited her, in the fact that they added to her waif-like quality. But they were extremely old fashioned and, in fact, far too small for her face.

In morning registration Grace sat right at the front, almost on my desk. One day we were chatting as usual about TV and what-not until I noticed she wasn't wearing her glasses. The conversation moved on. They'd been lost or mislaid. I asked how she managed without them. I know one or two people who simply cannot cope without theirs - walking into walls and such. I also know people who hardly need them at all and can cope perfectly without them.

"I think I can see better," Grace said.

Turns out that Grace actually was the Cinderella. Her mother remarried and the stepsister got all the attention. Grace was more or less treated as an inconvenience. Her older stepsister was also at the school and was well dressed and self-possessed to the point of being a bully. The disparity between the way the two girls were treated was unbelievable.

Grace couldn't read because she couldn't see. She'd had her cute blue glasses since she visited the optician aged six, two years pre-stepsister. She had never been back. Her Mum insisted she wore her glasses and, desperate for attention and praise, Grace complied, even though she knew they actually hindered her sight.

I went to the Special Needs co-ordinator with this information. Grace needed an eye-test and also some remedial reading help. She could also benefit from encouragement into social activities away from her family. My concerns were noted but nothing happened apart from me allowing Grace to take off her glasses in my lessons and sit near the front so she could make out the blackboard.

I wish I could claim some special credit. However my discovery of Grace's problems was purely an accident of chance. She developed a bond with me - probably because she lacked a sympathetic adult in her life. I found her cute hopelessness appealing and was an enthusiastic new teacher, keen to 'make a difference'.

But Grace's inability to see, never mind her awful home life, was not picked up for at least three years. She was relegated to the ranks of the nice but stupid. Written off at aged 9 or 10. The system simply failed to help her.

What happened to her I don't know. I wish that, ten years later, I could say that she turned out to be a gifted student and managed to break away from her family to make a success of her life. But I left the school before I could make sure any real action was taken to help the girl and someone else took over.

As I said, it was just chance really. I try to be conscientious and make myself aware of special needs. But in amongst the other time pressures of a high school teacher it is hard. Each of the illnesses and disabilities I listed at the start of this post are ones I have learned about by looking them up for myself. No formal training was ever offered to me in recognising or dealing with special need children. And I'm someone who tries to care.

One of my most successful students was Bobby, a boy with Cerebral Palsy. His physical co-ordination was awful and again it meant he was relegated to the ranks of the nice but stupid. I found him some pens that he could hold and control. The school baulked at paying for them and another teacher took them off him because their ink was black and she insisted on blue. Bobby took technology, and had a dedicated and caring assistant with him to help him with physical tasks. The technology teacher had some notion that 'tough love' would somehow improve him. This teacher barred the assistant from helping him with physical tasks such as using scissors or drawing plans. I have an idea that this guy had good intentions and his methods probably worked with the terminally feckless. But they were totally one-dimensional. He seemed to think that barking and harrying would somehow cure Bobby's co-ordinational ineptitude. What it did do was make him cry, for which (in a boys' school) he was then branded a wimp and a quitter. Knowing the teacher involved I have my doubts as to whether he would have listened to specific training and advice about how to best help a cerebral palsy student. But we will never find out because such training did not exist.

Each time I encounter someone with a problem, illness or disability I am acutely aware of the fact that the entire system has simply not geared itself to providing for them. The system, full of individuals with good intentions, muddles through; and inclusion looks increasingly like another trendy, well intentioned but ill-though out and under-resourced policy wonk's wet dream.

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