Relationships—the key to an inclusive education by Elizabeth Wright.
October 13 2019
The moment that I was born my parents had to think about my education. They had to consider a multitude of aspects— what type of education they wanted for me, how to get the best education for me, and which school would be the best school to send me to. There was an urgency to their consideration. Not because they were highly ambitious parents who wanted to get me into “the best school.” The urgency came from the fact that I had been born with an impairment and in the late seventies/early eighties disability in mainstream schooling was unheard of.
I was born with a physical disability called limb difference. This means that I am missing half my right arm, a finger on my left hand, and my right leg is severely shortened (meaning I wear a prosthetic leg to walk). The doctors had not told them I would be born with missing limbs. All they suggested to mum and dad was that they abort me, no reason given. Well, they didn’t abort me, and when I was born their lives changed forever. I like to think in a good way.
Within the first year of my life my mum had already gone to the local primary school to speak to the head teacher. It was the school my much older brother and sister went to. Knowing many of the staff already, mum was blunt and upfront, she wanted me to attend that school. Immediately the head teacher and most other teachers were on board. Mum and the head teacher decided that mum would volunteer in the school, in the canteen, and she would bring me along. The teachers and staff were getting to know me and my abilities. I was getting to know what would become my second home for several years.
I have very vague memories of this time. I remember sitting on the countertop in the canteen. I remember watching the children at recess and lunch buying their food and sweets. I remember the canteen ladies coddling me and giving me musk sticks as a treat (Aussie sweet, they are delicious, look them up). I remember the school nurse chatting to me as she took me to the toilet. I remember getting to go into the staff room and meet some of the teachers.
When it was time to enrol me in school the entire staff was happy to have me attend. My mum had built such positive relationships between herself, the staff and me. There was a confidence in my ability to go into mainstream schooling. A confidence that the NSW education department didn’t share.
My parents had a fight on their hands. The NSW education department didn’t want me to attend a mainstream school. They wanted me to attend the special school that was half an hour away. They didn’t think that I would cope in mainstream education. They didn’t think that the school would cope with a physically disabled child. Perhaps they had a point. One thing I haven’t told you about the local primary school is that there are a lot of stairs there. And whilst I can go up and down stairs, it is laborious and frustrating. I can only go one step at a time. This was only one issue, however, and one that could be solved by ensuring my classroom was always on a ground floor.
With the support of the entire school, my parents lobbied the education department to allow me to attend the school. The head teacher was my biggest cheerleader, I even remember his name, Mr Masters. Eventually the education department conceded, slightly, and allowed me to attend the school on a three month trial. Which I passed with flying colours. Because I knew the teachers and the school and the teachers and the school knew me. They knew what I was capable of, they knew what support structures to put in place, and they had a great relationship with my parents. Creating an environment where I could thrive.
I like to think that my parents were revolutionary. That they were part of the vanguard in a new way of thinking around education and disability. Sadly, how wrong I was. We still live in a society where parents have to fight to get their children into mainstream schooling and the support they need to achieve this. From my parents’ experience I can see that relationships were the key to making my education experience successful. I still believe that relationships are key. Yet, on a bigger scale, we still need to influence policy to allow these relationships to thrive.
Frankly, we all deserve an education that is appropriate for our abilities. In fact, education is a human right. Disabled children deserve an education that will allow them to thrive and flourish in society. And together I believe we can make this happen. So let’s tell our stories, let’s continue the fight, let’s make the change happen.
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Elizabeth Wright is a Paralympic Medalist, Writer, Keynote and TEDx Speaker. Her aim is to confront disability stereotypes and tropes, through writing and speaking about lived experience with her disability. You can read more of her writing here. Watch her TEDx here. And you can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Linkedin.
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