When our son, who had cerebral palsy which left him profoundly disabled, was approaching his fifth birthday his paediatrician discussed the options for schooling with us.
He said he thought Dan was incapable of learning but he was willing to be proved wrong and even if Dan didn’t gain intellectually from school access to physiotherapy may help him physically.
Legally Dan could have gone to the local school but it had only three teachers and none of them was trained to work with severely handicapped children. Nor did it have the equipment or facilities which might have helped him. We enrolled him at a school in town instead. It had a unit for children with a range of disabilities which was staffed by teachers who specialised in high needs children.
We’ll never know whether it might have helped Dan because he died a few days after his fifth birthday but I was reminded of the options we had for Dan when I read that half our schools are failing high needs students.
The ERO report, released today, pins the failings on poor leadership and training in schools, as well as prejudice.
That may be true of some schools but I doubt it’s fair for them all. It won’t be the will but the means and the money which prevents many schools giving high-needs pupils the help and attention they require.
Wellington High School principal Prue Kelly said resources were the bigger issue. “It’s grossly under-funded. It’s all very well to say personalised programmes, and get a plan around the kids, but actually it takes a huge commitment by the school to do that.”
Quite. This is what happens when a good theory – the integration of children with disabilities into mainstream schools – meets the expensive reality.
These children require specially trained staff working one to one. Few schools have those staff and the money for the equipment and facilities they need.
Mainstreaming may be the ideal, but fewer schools offering specialised help may be the better option with the staff and resources available.
This doesn’t mean ghettoising disabled children. At the school Dan would have gone to the disabled children mixed with the other pupils who were encouraged to play with and help them which had mutual benefits. But the special unit allowed dedicated staffing to ensure the high-needs children got the skilled help they required.
In a perfect world high needs children would be able to get everything they require through mainstreaming, but in the imperfect world we have it’s not always practical or affordable.
The ideology which drove mainstreaming without the resources to make it work is similar to that which led to the closure of This sheltered workshops. Karl du Fresne wrote on this in wanted: work not walls in the Listener and on politicising the disabled on his blog.
In both education and work some people with disabilities are victims of the best of intentions to help them because we can’t afford the resources to make the theory work in practice.