Encouraging voices was an apt title for a one-day conference that managed to bring the often hidden voices of young people to the fore. Young people with disabilities, yes, but with aspirations for their lives, especially at school, no different to their able-bodied peers—a feeling of community, no bullying or patronising, trained teachers, small classes and (above all) understanding, were high on their wish list.
The conference, held at the Burlington Hotel in Dublin, was hosted and sponsored by the National Disability Authority (NDA). The programme was the result of a project organised by Michael Shevlin, Education Department, Trinity College Dublin, and Richard Rose, Centre for Special Needs Education, University College Northampton, along with Irish and UK colleagues.
Presentations represented a diversity of research projects of a participatory nature where research was carried out ‘with’ (and in one instance ‘by’) the young people, rather than ‘on’ them. As well as research with young people with disabilities, research recounting experiences with other marginalised groups was also reported. A common theme emerging was that while young people of diverse backgrounds are included in ‘mainstream’ education their views are often ignored or trivialised. It was acknowledged that many individuals working within education are committed and motivated to inclusion at every level, but systemic provision is found wanting.
The research findings reporting the lived experience were powerful, but the conference was further enhanced by the contributions of people with disabilities themselves. From insightful contributions at workshops to actual presentations they challenged us as individuals and as a collective. It is not acceptable to declare, ‘we all have a disability in one way or another’. To do so is to trivialise the life of a person with a disability by equating it to impairment. They challenged us to look at what we value in our modern society—commerce, production and efficiency. If this is how we measure contribution or participation, then we have ruled out people with disabilities through our value system before they even get to the start line. A publication will follow, and further information on the conference is available at www.nda.ie.