Mainstream Malaise

By Bridget Gourlay

It’s been 30 years since the first children with intellectual disabilities were allowed entry into ‘regular’ classrooms. These children were met with a mixed reaction. Some were simply prejudiced – “I don’t want my child sitting next to a Mongol,” some expressed concern – “wouldn’t they be better off in a special classroom?” and others fear – “won’t they distract the teacher from normal kids?”

But that was a different, more ignorant time. Right?


The treatment of people with intellectual disabilities has undergone a seismic shift within the last century. A baby with Downs Syndrome born as recently as the 1940s was usually institutionalised immediately. This was a hangover from the eugenics ideology of the 19th century where people with supposed “lesser desirable traits” were to be prevented from having children – one way was for these people to be removed from society by placing them in purpose built gender-separate institutions.

Children with intellectual impairments spent their lives within the hospital grounds, sharing facilities and wards with people with mental illnesses. They were certainly not expected to have jobs, to marry, to live independently  – even to learn to read, write or count.

Enter 20 year old Andrew Oswin. He smashes any pre-conceptions about the abilities of a person with Downs Syndrome. The administration assistant made headlines in 2007 when he passed Level One NCEA. Oswin plays the piano, is an avid reader and has won Special Olympic medals for athletics and swimming. He loves to act in a local drama society and volunteers at his old primary school, helping pupils struggling with reading.

His father Richard, a deputy principal, says he and his wife had a ‘not there to decorate the chair’ philosophy from the start – Andrew was going to learn and live a productive life. They knew inclusive education was for Andrew because when he was around ‘normal’ children his aspirations were higher.

Richard says when the family went to enrol Andrew’s older brother at Fendalton Primary, the principal immediately said they would take Andrew in a few years, despite the fact they had no experience dealing with Downs Syndrome before. Because of the funding system at the time, the school was able to hire a teacher’s aide to help Andrew with his classroom tasks and with social interaction.


Lumped together

It wasn’t just the intellectually impaired who were institutionalised or segregated – people with physical disabilities such as the blind, the deaf, or wheelchair users were put in the ‘different’ category too.

Dr Rod Carr, vice chancellor of the University of Canterbury, was one of them. Carr is legally blind and for the first six months of primary school in 1963 he attended a special school where children with a variety of disabilities were “lumped together”.

“None of us were profoundly disabled. It was an era where people were regimented into groups. It made the mainstream cleaner.”

Carr’s behaviour was so bad his teacher recommended he be moved to a school for the blind. But after an interview with his brother’s private school’s headmaster, Carr was enrolled and began to thrive.

He needed binoculars to see the whiteboard, and couldn’t participate in some activities – Carr recalls a disastrous game of cricket his teacher forced him to get involved with which ended with him knocked out after a ball to the head.

“The lesson here is that if kids are mainstreamed there needs to be support for teachers – this was clearly a mismatch of expectations.”

Difficulties with reading and sport were soon overcome. Carr went on to get a PhD, become the acting governor of the Reserve Bank and the CEO of Jade Software. He runs about two marathons a year.

Shifting attitudes

In the 1970s, children with intellectual disabilities were not institutionalised, but were sent to special schools or to regular schools with special education units. Strong social stigma was often attached to these children and their families; remember, until then people with disabilities had been out of sight and out of mind.

Forty year old Loren Glenn, who has a mild intellectual impairment, started intermediate in a mainstream class. When she couldn’t keep up with the school work her teacher decided she couldn’t be in the class, so Glenn spent the school day in a supervised spare room. The experience made her feel left out, stupid and unwanted.

“We need to stay in the same class, we shouldn’t be segregated, we should be all equal. If we need extra help we should get support like teacher aides… If we’re all together we all make new friends. We’ve all got the same needs and hopes as anyone else. We’re people just like they are.”

She advises teachers to have more patience with children with special needs.

Glenn now works in data entry one day a week and is a keen soccer player and swimmer. She has worked on numerous community projects aimed at getting the public to understand people with disabilities better, including one where she went into a primary school and spoke with the children.

In the late 70s and early 80s the first children with intellectual disabilities became mainstreamed, but the practise was not common. It usually occurred in rural areas where there were no alternatives, or at forward-thinking schools.

In 1989 it became law that all children had the right to attend their local school. This effectively meant that legally, regardless of ability, a child could attend his or her local school and provisions had to be made to ensure all of their needs were met.


Separate and unequal

Twenty-one years later, IHC advocacy manager Trish Grant says for many children with intellectual disabilities this is still not the case. She says schools have such limited access to funding or the resources to meet the special needs of children with disabilities, they have no choice but to limit attendance.

“Parents are often asked to contribute financially to teacher aide hours because of a funding shortfall, the only other option being that their son or daughter is sent home.”

Grant says children with disabilities often miss out on assemblies, camps and plays – because schools often can’t cope, either financially or because the teachers aren’t trained to deal with problems that might arise.

This is obviously not inclusive education. And to fight this practise, the IHC has lodged an official complaint to the Human Rights Commission.

Richard Oswin advises parents of a child with special needs to only work with schools who are willing to support them.

“You’ve expended so much energy getting your child to the point of going to school, you physically don’t have the energy to fight the school for acceptance. You need to put your energy into educating those who are open, who want to work with your child.”

Trish Grant says separating students by disability is not only bad for disabled students who have the right to participate in society and because research has shown they perform better academically and socially when they are included, but for non-disabled kids who grow up without exposure to children of different needs.

“We’re at the start of a whole new era that’s about having wonderful diverse communities where people of different races and families all exist. This is a real opportunity to be more diverse. To really be a mirror reflection of our community – that’s what ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ was supposed to be about.”

Not for everybody

This doesn’t mean that inclusive education is for everybody. Some parents have found their child does best at a special school, either full-time or part-time – particularly if the child’s needs are very high.

Even Andrew Oswin spent his final few years at high school in a special unit, where he sat assessments and did work experience to prepare himself for the job market. Some children may start off in one system and then decide to swap. While the IHC say they push for inclusive education, they also support parents who choose not to do so.

What they say isn’t available is total choice for parents. Parents need access to an environment where their children thrive academically and socially, where they grow to become happy and well-rounded members of society.

Sound familiar?


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