Children with disabilities, choices, and how schools can fail them.

As some of you may know my eldest child, Mackenzie, has a medical condition that means that his muscles don’t always work as they should do which leaves him weaker than average, prone to bouts of fatigue, and occasionally having to use his wheelchair.
Currently he is still at primary school but in September 2018 (which is scarily close!)  he will be starting his secondary education (or high school for my American friends 🙂 )  and, as such, we’ve spent the last few nights visiting potential schools.
Due to the ‘peculiarities’ of the country we have chosen to live in, Northern Ireland,  (as much as I moan about it it IS a beautiful country, with some of the friendliest and most giving people, and one of the best educational systems in the world, and THE best health system too, plus it has my family and it is home) it is a segregated country, choosing to mostly define itself by its two major religions: protestant and catholic, and the majority of its schools are split that way too. However my children go to an integrated school where, be deliberate choice, children are NOT split by their faith, but educated together by all faiths, or none. The nearest secondary school/high school which is integrated is about 15 miles away, or 25 minutes drive; this would mean Mackenzie getting up earlier, leaving the house earlier, and getting a bus to and from school every day …and 1/ potentially getting more fatigued due to this and 2/ being much further from home if there ever were to be a medical emergency that required us (so far in the 6 years at primary school there hasn’t been but, you know, we worry). The thing about it, the unfortunate thing about it, was that we all adored the place; there was NOTHING, not to love about it other than the location. Every aspect of it: the fact it was all on one floor, the teaching staff, the obvious happiness of the kids, the educational ethos, the league standings, the gifted stream, the pastoral care (and specialism for disabled children), EVERYTHING, was perfect!
So, this led to us, unfortunately, deciding that we may have to drop our principles in regards to wanting to only ever have our kids at an integrated school and ‘maybe’ look into a school closer to home that was segregated by faith (obviously, as agnostic Humanists that isn’t a major issue as we are classed as not having a faith for the school numbers, but as a matter of principle it rankled a tad), due to the matter of what was best for Mackenzie.
One of the schools is, literally, just outside our house; we can look outside Mackenzie’s bedroom window and see the school. We attended the open night and he loved what he saw – it was fresh, and vibrant, and fun. The children were happy, the approach to education was child focused, and they had a library that was the size that some small villages would be envious of …and they had a lift to take you from the ground floor to the second and, where there were more stairs, they had wheelchair lifts to take you up. We all had a REALLY good feeling about this school, even though, from a ‘league’ viewpoint, it wasn’t at the top of the scale and maybe didn’t offer everything that a gifted child needed (not to boast, or to sound biased, but Mackenzie is only 9 and is testing beyond a 16 year old currently) … but he LOVED the feel of the place.
The third school that we visited was the oldest school in Northern Ireland, and the second oldest school in Ireland (and a school that I myself ‘technically’ went too – didn’t go to for very long so don’t count it 😉 ) and has a very good reputation, and offers some amazing opportunities both educationally and in terms of your onward CV …but from the moment that we arrived, and had to go up an old flight of stairs, then over cobbled pavement, and down another flight of stairs into an old lecture theater, to hear the welcome speech from the Headmaster, we knew there would be issues. Rightly or wrongly so the whole speech, and the whole tour, was aimed at, and around, the educational attainment of the children, but also, the whole tour was lengthy, and up and down MANY flights of stairs and around a very old (the original building was built some time in the 1700s) castle type structure. We didn’t last the whole tour, to be honest, because Mackenzie got too tired and asked to go home; he liked some of what he saw, but said he didn’t think that he’d like to go there; I managed to speak to the Deputy Head about accessibility for a child in a wheelchair and, to his credit, he was extremely frank and honest, and he answered with one word: ‘problematic’. There are not lifts at all anywhere in the school, not even in the newer parts, let alone the ancient parts, all of which are used, daily, for all the students. He said that we should arrange to speak to the bursar, the Headmaster, and the Education Authority if we were interested in sending Mackenzie there to see if anything could be done …but, to be honest, if nothing has been done already – and considering that the Disability Discrimination Act came into force in 1995 which means that they should have done something, ANYTHING, to address these issues by now – I don’t hold out much hope that they would be able to do much for one child anyway. I just found it quite staggering, and more than a little disgraceful, that a school that opened a welcoming speech by saying that they were there for a ‘whole child experience’ were so woefully unable to actually allow a disabled child to even be educated there at all.
End of the day while this school ‘may’ have been one of the better choices from an educational standpoint it has definitely ruled itself out in every other way and has made the choice of where Mackenzie goes next a little bit easier to make.