As I stumble down the supermarket isle, my eyes gravitate to the word ‘special’. Whilst I yearn for a bargain, I have a sense of utter aversion to that word. ‘Special’ conjures negative memories of starting school, it equates with segregation and confinement.
I was placed in a ‘special unit’ at a mainstream primary school, my peers had both physical and intellectual disabilities. We had classes within the unit and were permitted to play with ‘mainstream’ students, during recess and lunch.
Our classrooms were wooden buildings separate from the mainstream school, magnifying our differences. Although there wasn’t a physical barricade, an invisible force field existed and I knew if I crossed it, I would be penalised.
I struggled to grasp why I was prevented from being with the other students. My differences were amplified when staff placed a helmet on my head, before I ventured out to play. This was done for safety, I had a tendency to frequently hit the pavement. I remember, trying to convince other students, I had a motorbike parked behind the class room. I was adventurous. When playing outside the unit, I would climb trees, quite a feat with cerebral palsy (CP)! Staff would recognise me by glancing at my knees, constantly grazed and occasionally dripping with blood. I never grasped the word caution.
I was an intelligent child and loved learning. However, CP made writing and speaking laborious tasks. In kindergarten, I was granted a type writer. This was an intrinsic moment, I could now clearly articulate my thoughts, the machine became both pencil and voice, it was emancipating, opening a whole new world.
The environment wasn’t conducive to learning. While I was devouring Enid Blyton books, my teachers provided me texts containing simplistic sentences. I craved stimulation. Learning tasks were not matched to my cognitive ability and I completed them rapidly, with no provision for extension. I was denied the same curriculum as able bodied children and felt stagnant. Fortunately I went to the library often, I was content to read.
Most days after school, enjoying my ice cream soda, with the remains of cream dripping on my chin, I would question mum why I couldn’t attend school with able bodied children. She would glance at me sadly, perplexed how to explain the workings of systemic discrimination to a six year old.
When my younger brother Dean, started at the local catholic school, I was incensed. My outrage reached its pinnacle, after attending his school mass. When mum picked up her bag to depart from the pew, I burst into tears, raining down my cheeks as a monsoon. “Why can’t I go to this school mum? Dean does!” That question sparked my mother’s quest to gain me entry into a mainstream school. Over the course of a year, she wrote letters and attended meetings over weak tea with school officials. I had to sit tests, proving my cognitive capability. I was confident my results wouldn’t disappoint and I was correct.
Wham! In 4th grade I was accepted. I was a bird released from a cage. I desperately yearned to fit in, to prove I was just as smart or stupid as my able bodied peers. I was openly embraced by the other students and finally tasted inclusion. Friends would love speeding my wheelchair through the playground, I fell out a few times, my stomach aching from laughter.
In high school, I remained in mainstream classes using humour to gain acceptance. For instance in drama, during a ‘say and act’ lesson, I told the other students to walk ‘like me’, producing raucous laughter.
I allowed students to take turns in my electric wheelchair. It was a novelty and my popularity grew. Sadly, my increased popularity was short lived. My class mates and I were all assembled in the hall one day, to hear the Principal's voice, magnified through a microphone, demanding the wheelchair be used only by me. As an adult, I’m aware of the health and safety implications, however, at the time I felt as though the school administration was maintaining demarcation between the other students and me.
In my senior years, I achieved high marks. I was extremely fortunate to have nurturing teachers, with strong beliefs I would be accepted into university. My future became full of promise, aspiring to earn a degree and become a productive citizen.
As I hold, with wobbly hand, the marked down product in the supermarket, ‘special’ equates with 'cheap'. I chuckle, I’m definitely not cheap, my partner can attest to that!