Geraldine McCabe details her experience of how the Irish education system is failing our children with Intellectual Disabilities. This article was originally a submission by Geraldine McCabe to the UN Day of General Discussion (DGD) on the right to education for persons with disabilities, held on 15 April 2015, at Palais des Nations, Geneva.
Geraldine McCabe writes to the United Nations about Inclusive Education.
Her daughter Shannon has Down Syndrome.
Geraldine sees difficulties for children with special needs in getting the opportunity to develop and contribute to society.
Shannon wasn’t allowed to take part in regular activities in school.
My experience relates to my daughter Shannon- Shannon has Down Syndrome and her experience highlights the difficulties children with special needs have in getting the opportunity to develop and contribute to society.
My experience with Shannon is that the school system is unable to see past her condition to the vast wealth of skills and qualities that she has to offer, and that her school has limited opportunities for her by:
- restricting the manner in which our daughter could best participate in her Junior Certificate;
- refusing to let her take part in Transition Year with her peers;
- allowing her only to attend school on a part time basis, thus in effect suspending her;
- giving her access to Physical Education for only the last five weeks of the school year;
- never allowing her to attend extra circular activities within the school environment;
Children with special needs have a lot to offer, but education and related organisations frequently do not give them the opportunity to either develop the skills, or to get the qualifications, that they need to succeed.
Supporting The Child
One of the main purposes of education is to prepare children for adult life. To me, this means providing the child with:
- the opportunities to get qualifications they need to succeed
- the opportunities to develop and expand on the skills and qualities
that they need to succeed
- the belief that they can make a contribution to society
- the motivation to make a contribution to society
Providing the child with the opportunities to get the qualifications they need to succeed
A child may have a condition, but they should not be defined by that condition. They have so much to offer and this must be recognised. Frequently their condition, which is one aspect of them, eclipses everything and they do not get the opportunities to study/train for particular qualifications or they do not get the support they need to achieve these qualifications.
Unfortunately, factors such as the cost of providing these supports dictate the decisions a school will make when offering education to children with special needs. The child can be the casualty of this, when they do not get the opportunities that they need, to get the qualifications that they need, to meet their career goals.
Providing the child with the opportunities to develop and expand on the skills and qualities that they need to succeed
As mentioned, children with special needs are defined by the conditions that dictate that they have special needs. These children can tend to be overlooked in education and training and may not get the opportunities needed to reach their potential. Children with special needs are like all children. They have strengths – these strengths need to be built on and celebrated. The child needs to be defined in terms of their strengths. Often it is not the case.
The child will have weaknesses. Schools need to take note of these weaknesses and rather than treat weaknesses as something negative, schools need to focus on weaknesses as opportunities for development. There may be factors that may work to threaten a child’s development. Identifying these factors is a positive thing but in the schools and training systems, staff can tend to use these potential threats as an excuse to give up. This has certainly been my experience. These factors need to be seen as barriers to development.
But like many barriers in life, there are ways to overcome them. Barriers should not be used as an excuse for giving up. Unfortunately my experience is that they do.
Providing the child with the belief that they can make a contribution to society
Every child has so much potential. However, many professionals in education do not see past the child’s condition, whatever it might be. The child must have belief in themselves. Their self-belief needs to be nourished, and they must be helped to realise that they have so much to offer. This self-belief is a very fragile and vulnerable thing. Staff in education play an important part in making sure that this seed of self belief is nourished, and that the child sees that he or she has a lot to offer.
Providing the child with the motivation to make a contribution to society
Following from the previous comment, the child needs to believe that he or she can succeed. Children can, if they are given the belief and faith. The school must have faith in the child. If it doesn’t, the child will not. Unfortunately, this was the case with my daughter. She has had countless barriers placed in front of her. Countless professionals in the education system have written her off and it is an ongoing struggle to offset the damage caused by this.
Observations on the Southern Irish Education System
In addition, I would like to make the following points about the infrastructure/system behind all this:
- There are many supporting organisations whose overwhelming concern is self-interest
- I would question the value for money benefit of these organisations
- The complaints/advocacy system does not work
- The system of support has ground to a halt in red tape
- The financial and emotional cost of advocating for your child is overwhelming
There are many supporting organisations whose overwhelming concern is self-interest, and there is no accountability or transparency from within the state system.
Indeed it appears that the Irish state are prepared to spend a huge amount of resources to make sure that a wrong continues to be a wrong rather than reviewing and amending systemic failures within in the system. This of course ensures that civil servants will continue to be kept employed within a dysfunctional system, and that voices like my daughter’s will continue to be ignored and disregarded. After all, who really cares about the voice of a person with special needs, when it comes to their education? Inclusion is working after all!!!!
I do note that there are organisations set up to support children with special needs, but due to the nature of their funding, these organisations are more concerned with using their resources to get continued funding. There is no stability in this sector. Staff are recruited on short-term contracts, and there is no continuity. This has a very adverse knock-on effect on the quality of service delivered.
I would question the value for money benefit of these organisations
Vast amounts of money seem to be spent on services, but none of these resources seem to cascade down to the service users. Service users need career advice. They need to access training. They need to be listened to, and they need to be assisted to believe that they have a lot to offer. This does not happen.
The complaints/advocacy system does not work
I have tried to address deficits in the delivery of services, and it is very clear to me that the systems do not work. They are weighted in favour of the system, and the people in the system know how to use the system to fend off complaints. I believe that the only way forward is to streamline the system of educational supports, and simplify pathways leading to the related supports, to foster an individual pupil-centred approach.
However, my experience tells me that this approach will not take place in my lifetime and for children like my daughter, the failure of the education system has defined her – instead of being a meaningful member of her community, she is condemned to always being viewed as an outsider, with no currency value.
The system of support has ground to a halt in red tape
Parents wishing to make a complaint are made to jump through administrative hoops. Staff use jargon, procedure and avoidance of responsibility to stop or slow down the complaints process.
The emotional cost of advocating for your child is overwhelming
When a parent makes a complaint, he or she is fighting a system, and can be overwhelmed by the sheer size and scale of the system. It’s a case of David versus Goliath, but unlike this tale, it is the gargantuan system that inevitably wins. Parents are eventually worn down from fighting the system, and make a pragmatic decision to give up.
Schools and training organisations have a pivotal role in ensuring that children are prepared for adult life. This means we must provide children with the opportunities to get qualifications, to develop and expand on the skills and qualities that they need to succeed, and the belief and motivation to make a contribution to society.
Also, we need a re-pointing of these organisations’ direction and motivation, to place the student at the centre of their priorities, and improve value for money. We must overhaul or replace the complaints/advocacy system, and remove the bureaucracy and red tape surrounding support systems. The financial and emotional cost of advocating for your child is overwhelming for parents, and in this regard, schools ‘could do better’. A lot better.