Today’s post is a long one so grab a cuppa, get comfy and enjoy!
“How did you cope in mainstream education?” is something I get asked all the time. I attended mainstream school all the way through education and continued on to university. This blog post is to no way brag about what grades I got, or anything like that, I simply wrote it to highlight the challenges and difficulties that I faced in the hope that it might help others in a similar situation as me. I also want to discuss some of the positive aspects of my mainstream education experience because by no means was it all bad.
When I look back and reflect on my experience in a mainstream environment I feel a mixture of emotions – a sense of anger, frustration, isolation, proud and most of all a sense of achievement.
The overall experience gave me a rather big insight to people’s perceptions on disability (in my case visual impairment), their lack of knowledge and understanding on how to teach a blind/visually impaired person in a mainstream school, making friends and growing up. I know that every disabled person that goes through the mainstream education system faces different challenges and in no way are our experiences exactly the same but many students will have similar experiences throughout their time in education. Whether you’re in mainstream education or specialist school it’s hard to balance the academic work alongside the normalities of growing up, even more so as a disabled person. Let me tell you why. You’re still discovering who you are, what your future goals and ambitions actually are, where you want to go in life, finding out who your friends are, how to adapt work so that it makes it easier for yourself and most of all, you’re more than likely still getting to grips with your disability. Do we ever really accept our disability, yes we learn to live with it and feel comfortable in our own skin, but that’s different to loving having a disability.
My time at primary school was enjoyable, there were a few hiccups but nothing major. I never felt isolated and I guess I didn’t really think about my disability, what young child does really? I felt like every other child in my primary school. However, my time at secondary school didn’t go as smoothly and it certainly wasn’t the same.
One of the main difficulties that I faced in mainstream education was the lack of knowledge that teachers had when teaching a person with a visual impairment. From my experience most teachers did not always understand that I needed materials adapting and putting into braille, I could not write in books – my work was either done on a brailler or on a laptop, I could not see images so they needed to be described to me clearly and I could not watch videos that did not have any spoken commentary. Teachers did not seem to understand that materials needed to be given to my teaching assistants in advance so that they would have plenty of time to prepare them for me and put them in a format that I could actually work from and most importantly, read. I wish teachers realised as a matter of fact it does not just take my teaching assistant 5 minutes to put a textbook or revision guide into braille/audio for me, it in fact takes hours. It sometimes takes that long that they have to be requested from the publishers or specialist companies. Work needed to be given to my TA’s in advance so it meant that teachers had to plan ahead. For example, giving a double lessons worth of work on the day the lesson is taking place does not help me as a student, my teaching assistant or the teacher. The amount of times this happened is crazy! I am not having a go at or criticising teachers, I am just highlighting issues that I encountered.
All of the above issues took place throughout my time in education so it was definitely a challenge for me. Despite all of this, I got a good set of GCSE’s, most of which ranging from A-C.
Many disabled people face bullying in mainstream education which really does make me angry. I was no exception to this. It could have been so much worse than it was but I think these issues really do need highlighting. When this happened I probably didn’t stand up for myself as much as I should have, and I think that was more a confidence issue but I did not let it bother me. I was worth than those that didn’t understand my disability and I stand by that, even today.
As I continued on to sixth form at the same school there were still the teacher issues, especially not getting resources to my teaching assistants on time. There were a couple of teachers that went above and beyond to ensure that I was included in every activity, had work prepared in time for me and that I felt comfortable when taking part in group work. I fully believe that they helped me get the A-levels that I did achieve. Although I put the work in, they helped me build my confidence dramatically and actually believed in me as a person.
One other thing that I personally believe that are taken for granted are teaching assistants. I was god damn lucky with the teaching assistants that I did have, they believed in me and one of them was more like my friend. She would fight for my work to be given on time so that she could make it accessible for me but one thing she did without realising was that she always lifted me back up whenever I was down due to my visual impairment. Even today, she still supports me in everything that I do. I know that not everyone has the same relationship with their TA’s as I did and I feel so lucky to have had their continued support. Just a note: never take your teaching assistants for granted!
One of the main challenges that I faced was isolation from peers. There were the usual fallouts but I especially felt isolated when I was in sixth form. Everyone was learning to drive, going out partying and I obviously wasn’t included in any of this. I remember finishing year 11 and feeling so excited to start sixth form and truthfully, it was definitely not what I expected. The A-levels that I took were sociology, English language and music. At the end of year 12 (the first year of sixth form) I ended up dropping music because I felt that it wasn’t fully accessible for me and it was not what I thought. I tried other subjects such as RE but had no luck with that either. I ended up doing an extended project which is a bit like a university dissertation, I was able to write about a topic of my choice which did help me prepare for the university style of writing. I ended up leaving sixth form with 2 full A-levels in sociology and English language and 2 AS levels. But I didn’t let that phase me because I still got into my first choice university!
As I previously said, I felt rather isolated throughout sixth form. I had a couple of friends but that was it. I felt like the rest of my year thought “we’re too cool to be friends with the blind girl”. This probably did affect my confidence more than I realised at the time and that has become more apparent to me now. I remember counting down the days until I left that school and dreaded getting up each morning for sixth form. I have honestly never been so down and low before. But I got back up, moved on when I went to university. I believe that sixth form was just the bridge that I had to cross before my life got better when I started university. At one point I thought that I was going to fail my final exams and I even started thinking that if that was going to happen I couldn’t stay in that school any longer, I’d fully prepared myself to try and get a place at a specialist school for the visually impaired.
There’s so much assistive technology out now that enables blind and visually impaired people to become much more independent. When I was in school I didn’t have the most amazing technology as I’ve seen others have but the technology that I did have enabled me to be independent and complete work on my own. As I have previously mentioned I completed work on a laptop or a brailler. I didn’t use an iPad, braille display or braille notetaker in school, not like many blind and visually impaired people do now. I relied on Jaws screen-reader and masses of braille paper in folders. I think this had it’s advantages and disadvantages as using braille gave me the opportunity to extend my knowledge, I learnt braille in three languages: English, French and german and also learnt braille music as well. However, it did mean that when it came to revision the amount of folders I had was rather overwhelming. I could have benefited from something like a braille display as I have one now and find it very useful.
However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, my mainstream school experience did have it’s positive aspects as well, there were many of those in fact. One of which I have previously mentioned, my teaching assistants who definitely helped me get through mainstream school. Another advantage of mainstream schools that I think is very important is mixing with non-disabled people. Not everyone is going to like you, you’re not going to like everyone either, people won’t accept your disability and others will so hold on to those people that do because they’re special. It fully prepares you for the outside world and being a minority in a majority of nondisabled people really does give you a backbone. It makes you stand up for yourself and speak up when things aren’t going right or something needs changing/adapting.
One other positive aspect of mainstream education is that you get to take part in the majority of activities just like everyone else. I took part experiments, school trips and all sorts of other stuff. Mainstream education made me independent in many ways., I wanted to work on my own in many lessons and nearly every lesson in sixth form I didn’t have my TA sat by my side. This may shock some people but I felt that I wanted to be independent and work on my own because no one was going to sit with me in university and in the workplace. My TA’s were absolutely fine with this as it allowed me to mix with my classmates but it also allowed me to work independently just like everyone else. Many of the teachers were fine with this arrangement, however there were a few that did panic and often wondered if I could cope on my own. For me, independence wasn’t just about learning to use a cane, yes that’s important but it was also about learning to stand on my own two feet, not relying on anyone being by my side. These for me, were the positive aspects of mainstream education and although I didn’t always love school (who does?) I will always value my time there because it definitely contributed to making me the person I am today. I’m not as bothered anymore if someone says something harsh about my disability or asks me questions, I believe that mainstream education allowed me to grow up just like every other sighted person and that’s what I’m most thankful for.
I haven’t pointed out significant events or experiences in this post because it’s rather personal, confidentiality and all that I guess but there are many good and bad ones that I have experienced.
So a note to any disabled person in mainstream education: you’re going to have to fight more than your peers in order to get what you want. But speak out and if something isn’t working for you then shout about it and make your voice heard. If you put the work in, there’s no reason why you can’t achieve excellent grades just like everyone else. You can go on to further/higher education, employment or whatever you want to do, mainstream education won’t stop you from doing that. You’ll have rocky patches, more than likely a lot of them but if you pull through them you’ll look back on them later in life and be proud of yourself.
Being a blind or visually impaired person in mainstream education is not uncommon so don’t think you shouldn’t be there. If you have the right support and equipment then you can go a long way!
I haven’t wrote this post to tell you my life story, I’ve wrote it because I know the challenges disabled people face in mainstream education so I wanted people to know that they’re not on their own, that there are people out there that have experienced the same or similar challenges and got through them.
If you would like to know any other significant aspects on my mainstream school experience or have any questions then please do ask.
See, I told you it was a long one! If you’ve read till the end then congratulations and thank you! I hope you enjoyed this post and it gave you an insight into my education as a disabled pupil.