Most young people would say that they value the right to a free and
equal education. Even if they don’t enjoy going to school they most
certainly enjoy having the privilege. But for disabled young people
this has not been the case; many have faced discrimination on all
levels within the education system and in many cases are excluded
However, with the introduction of the Special Education Needs and
Disability Act 2001 it is now unlawful for mainstream schools to
discriminate against disabled people. The act covers all areas of
education, to include colleges, universities and adult education
youth services. So is this the start of equality for all in
We spoke to Lucy Mason who is a wheelchair user, and Richard
Pearson who has Asperger’s syndrome about their time in mainstream
education, and about their hopes and desires for the future.
“Luckily for me I didn’t have the problem of having to fight to get
into mainstream school, but I know a lot of people who do,” Lucy
says. “One of the major problems was I always had to have a
learning support assistant to get me around the place.”
Learning support assistants are employed by the council to assist
disabled people within the education system. However, Lucy believes
that because the role of learning support assistant has a low
status, she didn’t always get the support she needed.
“This work is underpaid in some boroughs so, in my opinion, you
often got people doing this work who weren’t really right for the
job. I never got a learning support assistant that stayed very
long. It got really hard to make a relationship with anyone.”
With the introduction of the new act, Lucy believes that mainstream
schools will have to make some major changes to make them
completely accessible to disabled young people.
The Department for Education and Skill says there is £8.5bn
available for upgrading schools between 2002-4. And the Access
Initiative which provides funding for making schools more
accessible to disabled young people has funded 6,000 schools’
upgrades since 1996. But how long will it take for people’s
attitudes to change towards disabled people in mainstream
“When you are the only disabled young person in mainstream school
you get all the stuff about being different. You always have to
explain to people what your disability is,” says Lucy.
Lucy is all too aware of the discrimination faced by minority
groups within the education system. But she still finds it hard to
understand why disabled young people have, until now, been singled
out to be educated separately.
“No one would think for a second that it makes sense to educate
ethnic minorities separately. That would never help to break down
any barriers. So why do people think that it makes sense to take
disabled young people out of mainstream education? I’d like to see
a time when young disabled people are no longer seen as a burden on
the system. It would be something that we could be proud of as a
country, that we have actually done a big piece of human rights
work in a sense.” For Lucy the word inclusion is very important.
And she feels that being included in mainstream schools will not
only benefit those with disabilities but also able-bodied young
people. “The more diverse the education system is the less
prejudice we have when we grow up.”
Having disabled people in mainstream education would also make
others aware that disabled people are not only wheelchair users as
Richard points out.
“Some staff, within schools, think that disabled people are
wheelchair users only, unless it is very obvious to tell. With very
severe autism it is easier to tell because of the lack of
communication, but with Asperger’s syndrome it’s a lot harder.”
So does Richard think that the new act will change attitudes and
make more people aware of the needs of disabled young people in
education? “At school the teachers didn’t know I had a disability.
It was so hard to tell, they didn’t think that it was something
that would affect so many people.”
At primary school Richard says that the non-acceptance of his
disability was very apparent. They treated him as if he didn’t have
Asperger’s syndrome, therefore did not take his special needs into
consideration. But when he attended secondary school the situation
changed and he received more understanding and help.
Richard feels that there’s a need for people to be better informed
“There is some information in the media about disabled people but
there isn’t enough in schools, so that teachers and schoolchildren
know that they may come across people who are disabled, and know
how to make them feel comfortable with the way they are. I would
like to see less prejudice towards disabled people.”
Richard feels comfortable with his disability after finding out
that he had Asperger’s syndrome at the age of eleven.
“I seemed different from everyone else. I was glad that I knew what
was affecting me, it made me feel more comfortable. I tell people
about my condition, so they are more aware of Asperger’s
Richard feels that there are many wider social advantages of
disabled people attending mainstream schools. Like Lucy, he sees
the importance of all young people being educated together. “It can
help other children to be more aware and tolerant.”
With many organisations campaigning for the equality of disabled
people it seems likely that disabled people within mainstream
education will feel more empowered. The Disability Rights
Commission which has actively campaigned for these changes, has
outlined a code of practice that is designed to help schools
include disabled young people.
It will certainly be some time before the overall impact of this
act will be seen, but even in the short term more disabled people
will be included in the education system. No longer will they have
to feel set apart and unwelcome. As Lucy states “let’s do some
human rights work” and move towards making our education system one
that will educate, not discriminate.
Children’s Express is a programme of learning through
journalism for young people aged 8-18. Please visit the website