‘Every time another child is treated differently … another brick is added to that wall’

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Proud parent: Joe Kenny, who works in the
voluntary sector in Belfast, with his children Struan, Oisin and Niamh

Joe Kenny, who is blind and who works in the voluntary sector, tells VIEW why he is a huge supporter of fully integrated education

I’m now 40 and I have never heard one convincing argument yet for educating young people in anything but a fully integrated environment.

I’m totally blind, as blind as it gets, really, and I was educated in a special school for children with visual and hearing loss for all but the first year of my formal education. I lost my sight aged five due to complications from congenital glaucoma.

Back then, in the early 1980s, a rural primary school simply couldn’t cope with a child who was blind or who had poor sight. My remaining memories of Primary One involve me sitting in the corner under a bright lamp, away from the rest of the class, tracing shapes in a book with a really thick crayon.

During that year I developed an eye infection and lost my sight – more or less overnight – in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. I now joke that as disabled kids needing educated in the 1980s, we weren’t even entitled to segregated education like our sighted siblings and peers. We were all sent to a special school and that was that.

Over the years I’ve made no secret of the fact that I believe our standard of education was low compared to that of my sighted peers who attended mainstream education. I don’t believe we were pushed enough academically. I left there in 1995, a year later than mainstream school leavers, with only six GCSEs to show for my time. At 17 when I was finishing school, everyone else was halfway through their A-levels or already starting work.

All that said, we had an integrated school, we were educated in a totally integrated and non-denominational environment. Yes, we had separate Religious Education classes and every so often a priest would appear to say Mass and half of us stayed and the other half didn’t.

The rest of the curriculum and recreation time was spent with Protestant and Catholics and any other faith or religion all together, and guess what, we all survived and our souls have as much chance of Heaven or Hell as they ever did. Green or Orange, and those who couldn’t see the difference anyway, laughed and ran, fought and played together, wearing the same uniform and not giving a thought to how unusual this was in terms of wider Northern Ireland society.

When I grew up a bit and learnt the darker, more adult ways of the world, I knew how lucky we’d been, and still carry this with me today.

To me there was a lot lacking in terms of our formal education, but whether by accident or design, they got a little functioning pocket of cultural integration in a small school outside Belfast. Given that it was the 1980s/1990s, I still thank my lucky stars that I managed to duck at least one attempt at brain washing tribalism along the way.

Whether we’re talking about integrated education in terms of religion or physical/sensory disability, our expectations and our future outlook are absolutely shaped by those early school years.

If we want our adults of tomorrow to be well adjusted, outward looking, go-getters, then surely by now we should have realised the benefits of inclusive and integrated education.

Every time a child is treated differently or forced to take a separate path, or is told “no you can’t”, because of their disability or background, another brick is added to that wall and when they grow up, climbing back over that wall can be tricky, sometimes impossible.

You don’t get a second crack at school. Yes, you can go back to education in later life. School is so much more than academic achievement, though. It’s where a little person learns to be a big person and where we learn what it means to belong to a tribe.

• To read the latest issue – https://issuu.com/brianpelanone/docs/education_issue_2017

• To download the latest issue as a PDF – https://cl.ly/oynL

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