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“The Headmaster Saw The Fact I Was Bullied As A Part Of My ‘Learning Experience”

What impact can having a disability have on your ability to make friends at school? Three adults tell their stories...

  • “The Headmaster Saw The Fact I Was Bullied As A Part Of My ‘Learning Experience”

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“My disabled friends became everything”

Penny Pepper is a writer, performance poet and disability activist
My first day at special school began with a fight between myself and my long suffering mum to get me on the special school bus. It arose from a fundamental question – I was only 5, but I knew in my bones that there was something wrong in sending me to a school 20 miles away from the friends I’d played with all my life. It would take me a long time until I could properly articulate those feelings.

Once on the minibus, surrounded by other kids, I was seated next to Angie. Angie had long, straight black hair and told me immediately that she had cerebral palsy. She offered me a Fruit Polo, as long as I didn’t mind opening the packet. I giggled as I struggled with the arthritis in my own fingers. This incident illustrates what would one of the most positive aspects of my life at special school – the friendships I formed from being with others who understood how difficult things could be.

But what became much more meaningful for me as time went on was the early sense of comradeship I would feel as we fought back, even with the little understanding we had of how confined we were within that special school world.

I’m not sure whether the concept of socialising had been invented then; it certainly hadn’t been at this school in the suburbs of Hertfordshire. Staff would occasionally take us to the theatre, and there were day trips. I still remember the cold fear that a day at the Natural History Museum roused in me. We received little support for our personal needs and access was scant. Such trips provided opportunities for incidental abuse – smacking and rough handling, especially.

Back at home I soon lost touch with my friends on the street where I lived and my disabled friends became everything. That’s the abiding legacy of my school years – friends who’ve stayed with me all my life, some of them becoming activists like me.

“I kicked out at them with my metal leg brace”

Mik Scarlet is a freelance journalist and broadcaster
I was lucky enough to go through the mainstream schooling system, after my parents fought to find me a place against opposition from our local education authority. They found the only school in our town that would take me on a trial basis, so moved house to be nearer. That meant having to leave all of my friends from our quiet, child-friendly cul-de-sac and starting at this new school knowing no one.

My mum still loves telling the story of how she watched me go through the school gates, her heart stopping as kids surrounded me, calling me names. They backed me against a wall, but instead of hearing me cry, the kids started flying as I kicked out at them with my metal leg brace. She knew then that I’d be OK, and I was.

I have really happy memories of my early school life. My best mate was Aston Hill, who was very tall even at the age of 8, but I had loads of friends. My main recollection of playtime back then was always being caught when we played kiss chase and absolutely hating it. A few years later I’d have killed to have girls chasing after me…

Once I was older, instead of moving to my primary’s high school I went to a newly built school that had been specifically designed to integrate disabled kids and was the first disabled kid to go there. I could still walk at this point, though, so didn’t need stuff like the lift and accessible loos.

Yet again I found myself having to start a new school with no mates, but I soon formed firm friendships. I fell in with a gang of outsiders who resembled The Goonies. Late developers, we were still running around playing war while the cool kids got on with trying to impress girls. Many years after leaving school I formed a band with two members of said gang and toured around Europe with them. We were much cooler by then, promise!

As well as my qualifications, school taught me that friends come and go, and that you’re lucky if you can keep one or two good ones as you go through life…

“Most of my friends were adults”

Simon Stevens has cerebral palsy and is a disability consultant, activist, writer and performer
Looking back at my school days, I didn’t have many friends who were the same age as myself. Most of my friends were adults, especially those I’ve kept in touch with over the years. I believe this is because I had to work with adults on an unconscious level to realise my freedom and have my intelligence respected as someone with a speech impairment. I therefore lost a lot of my childhood.

I experienced significant bullying throughout my time at the all-boys mainstream school I attended. The headmaster saw the fact I was bullied as a part of my ‘learning experience’ – something I had to get used to as a part of my future. To make friends I had to meet people most of the way, but instead of making me withdrawn it made me angry and frustrated as I refused to accept I was more or less important than anyone else.

I had one friend at school, Matthew, whose mother was coincidentally also my teaching assistant for science and other subjects. He was the geek of the class, and we bonded through our interest in computers. On reflection, it was not a very deep relationship, and once we reached sixth form college we drifted apart. I kept in contact with his mother, though – it seemed I’d made more of myself than he had.

I think that making friends was made more difficult for me because I was ‘integrated’ rather than ‘included’ in school, in an era where my level of impairment made me a ‘freak’ due to the stigma of disability at the time. I’d assumed the role of an ugly duckling, with no peers with a similar impairment – too busy managing everyday life and barriers put in place by others to afford friendships. It wasn’t until instant messaging and social media came along that making real friends became possible.

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