Schools' attitudes to disability must change, writes ANN HEELAN

RECENTLY The Irish Timesrevealed how many fee-paying schools appear to be excluding children with special educational needs. In responding to this list, the question we should ask is: Why are so many professionals involved in education behaving in this unacceptable way?

The answer is that professional staff and parents see the child with the disability as the problem. Many children with disabilities are being inadvertently discriminated against in Irish schools because of attitudes and unchallenged thinking about disability. What are these attitudes? What do principals, staff and parents think about the ability of students with disability?

It is nearly a cliche, but some focus on the disability rather than the child. In schools where parents are paying high fees, disability is perceived as a threat to the concept of the gold star student. This is a myth and needs to be challenged. It is unacceptable and leads to discrimination and exclusion of very able students.

Children with disabilities can learn as much as other children when given the right tools and the right learning environment. Technology can make a significant difference and resources, such as electronic textbooks and voice-activated software, would enable the child to keep up with the work of the class independently.

Ignoring the talents of these children does not make economic sense. Many children with dyslexia (about 8 per cent of the population) have the very skills employers need to get us all out of the current economic mess.

The economic reality of hi-tech jobs in a fast-changing world means that employers need problem solvers, creative thinkers and technical experts. Many children with disabilities and specific learning difficulties have these skills in spades. They are great outside-the-box thinkers – they see the world differently.

They think laterally and make great leaps in understanding, seeing links and connectedness others do not see. Many are highly motivated, having had to negotiate an unwelcoming world.

It is unacceptable that schools should get away with restrictive practices. But changing attitudes takes time and directed effort – the old carrot and stick approach.

The Department of Education and Science – responsible for ensuring equality of education for all children – should implement a quota system for schools. This should link funding to new rules requiring schools to reflect the mix in the community, including children with disabilities. The Department of Education and Science is also responsible for ensuring there are sufficient supports such as technology in the classroom and that teachers are trained to use them.

The teachers’ unions also have a key role to play in leading this cultural change and could review their block on the introduction of individual needs assessments as recommended by the National Council of Special Education and embedded in the Disability Act since 2005.

Needs assessment is a systematic way to identify the support requirements of children with disabilities and is a critical step in ensuring that resources are used effectively and targeted to dealing with the impact of the individual child’s disability.

Ann Heelan is executive director of Ahead, the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability. Ahead is a non-profit organisation promoting full access to, and participation in, further and higher education for students with disabilities and to enhance their employment prospects on graduation