A child’s first year at school is an anxious time for any parent. You hope your child settles in well, makes new friends and doesn’t get bullied. You want them to enjoy school and be happy there, as education is important and the environment in which they learn is equally so. Having a child with a disability brings additional challenges regarding education, and parents have to choose carefully which school they think is right for their child.
In September 1990, when I started school at four years of age, mainstream school for blind children in Ireland wasn’t a popular option. Boys and girls went to separate schools for the blind in Dublin. They were residential, and my dad didn’t like the thought of me travelling four hours on a bus to and from Dublin every weekend. My mum was, and still is a primary school teacher in Scoil Iosagain in Buncrana. She asked if I could attend the school with my friends who I had met in play school the previous year. I was to be a pupil there until I made my first communion, and then I would move to Dublin. I never did move to Dublin, and was the first completely blind child to complete both mainstream primary and secondary education in Ireland.
I never had a full-time classroom assistant in primary school – it just wasn’t an option. During the last few years somebody came for an hour a day to help me during maths. I was always able to work at the same pace as my classmates, and no exceptions were made because of my blindness. I participated in P.E (even though I hated it), art, playground activities and classroom tests. I did all my work in Braille, which then had to be read back to my teachers as most of them never learned to read it. They taught me the same way they taught the other 29 girls and boys in the class and I never felt any different.
I never used a cane in school. I learned my way around the school and was usually guided by my friends. I was quite shy about starting conversations when I met people for the first time, but didn’t find it hard to make and keep friends. My friends helped me when I needed it, but were never overprotective. They reacted naturally to blindness, as did the other children in the school. If curious children did ask questions I would explain that I couldn’t see, rather than being offended by it. When I was younger I hated when the visiting teacher for the blind or the mobility officer came, because I felt different. These people were drawing attention to my blindness, something which was never considered otherwise.
I went to Scoil Mhuire secondary school along with my best friends. I didn’t have a full-time assistant until second year, when I used a laptop with a screen reader instead of the Braille machine. The assistant sometimes had an impact on how I interacted with my friends in class, but it never interfered with our friendships. I had so many new subjects and teachers, moving classrooms every fourty minutes, so it was impossible to work without one. There was lots of scanning to be done so that I could read the material, and taking notes in class by listening to a talking computer and a teacher wasn’t always easy.
I did one subject less than my classmates for my junior cert, and seven the same as everybody else for my leaving cert. Teachers didn’t view my blindness as a barrier to education, so they expected the same high standard from me that they did from the other students. I didn’t expect anything less of myself either, and worked as hard as I could.
School wasn’t always easy. Because I was the first blind pupil in both schools, the teachers were sometimes unsure how to teach me. Some were more helpful than others. It was a learning process for all of us. Scoil Iosagain now has its own excellent special needs department within the school, integrating children with various disabilities into mainstream education. I enjoy visiting the school often with OJ, and I am proud of how it has evolved over the years. The school is currently teaching its second blind child, who I’m sure will also have a positive experience there.
I am very thankful to my parents for making the decision to send me to school in my home town. They were very brave, as in many ways sending me to Dublin would have been an easier option. I made many great friends, and some of us are still very close today. I wouldn’t have had the same relationship with my friends if I went to school in Dublin. They would talk about things that happened during and after school which I was not a part of. Similarly, I would be involved in a community of blind and visually impaired people who they would know nothing about. I don’t think they would have the same natural understanding about disability as they do now, and this has benefited them in their careers and their daily lives. Most people know me in our town, something which probably wouldn’t have happened if I went to boarding school.
Growing up with sighted people has made me more determined to do what they do. I am familiar with life in a sighted world, and never expect everything to be easy. There is usually always a way around doing something that might seem difficult at first. I never waste time wishing I could see, just so I could fit in more easily.
I’m not saying that all blind children should be educated in mainstream education. It is not a suitable option for everybody, and it largely depends on how supportive your family and school is. There’s no point in putting your child in mainstream education for the sake of it, even though you know he or she is going to get a better education in a special school. I’m sure I would have learned many valuable skills in a school for the blind in Dublin, and possibly had an equally good education. I know I definitely would have learned better mobility and cane skills, as I wouldn’t be taken around by sighted guide so much. I might not be so shy about asking for help. I would probably have better daily living skills (I’m a terrible cook!) You never know, I might even have a slight Dublin accent! I’m not saying I’m smarter or better than anyone else because of my education, or that my parents made a better decision than anyone else’s. After all, it is up to the individual to make the best of their education wherever it takes place.
The girl’s school for the blind in Dublin has closed down, and more and more people are choosing mainstream education as an option. There are a lot more resources for teaching than there was when I was at school. I can only hope that blind and visually impaired children today enjoy their school days as much as I did.