I went to a school where everyone could stand on two legs unaided. I couldn’t walk around on two legs without assistance. I needed something made of metal to solve the problem. For reasons unknown to me, this seemed to imply many different things to everyone around me.
They believed I couldn’t speak. They believed I felt differently. They believed I was incapable. They believed my future was bleak. They believed I was grateful for less than they would be grateful for and they believed I was an abomination.
Throughout my life these attitudes have always puzzled me. In ancient Egypt there was a belief among the masses that physical disabilities and deformities were linked to a person’s mental and psychological state, as in: “what affects the mind also affects the body.” I often wondered as a child how this belief, which existed in a distant and non-scientific time, had survived all these years and made it all the way to Camden.
They believed I was an abomination.
As I attempted to fit in with the other children, I was often reminded that I didn’t. I was bullied by pupils, teachers and staff members on a regular basis but in distinctly different ways.
Within the confines of my secondary school, a place of futility and baselessness, the children would bully me in the traditional style of abuse. Their general logic was that “different means bad” and they would call me profane names, ostracize me from friendship groups, laugh about me behind my back and torment me by taking control of my wheelchair to move me around or tip it to scare me into thinking I was going to fall over.
The teachers’ bullying was more subtle and impressive. They truly were excellent bullies. They would refuse to acknowledge me in the classroom, not call my name for the register and assume I was mentally incapable without evidence, which would lead to me being placed in the lowest sets for subject that had sets. They would partner me up with teaching assistants (TAs) instead of classmates and exclude me from lessons by often teaching rooms I couldn’t physically get to, either because of a lack of stairlifts or because the rooms were too small. This meant that a lot of the time I wasn’t in class because the teachers had stopped me from going to class.
The teachers’ bullying was more subtle and impressive. They truly were excellent bullies.
The teaching assistants bullied the most frequently and effectively. Their style was a lot like the students’ and less like the teachers’. It was unprofessional, reactive and lazy, but as bullying goes it was very well done. And because they were adults, it hit me harder than the students’ bullying. It left me with all the negative emotions that you’d expect to get from being victimised and my confidence was destroyed. I have to give them credit for how they successfully managed to supress my personality.
The teaching assistants had absolute power over a small minority of overlooked children in similar predicaments to mine. I don’t believe the majority of the staff really understood how much the teaching assistants abused the power they asserted over us. If they had, I know with 100% certainty a large proportion of them would probably have been fired or at the very least investigated.
Towards the end of year 11 it was time for my GCSE exams and I was placed in rooms to answer questions about information I had never learned, either because I hadn’t been in the classroom or because I hadn’t been in a good enough psychological place to absorb it.
And so my destroyed and neglected education was neatly expressed in the form of my GCSE results. I passed Art and Religious Education (RE) with C grades and failed everything else. Don’t mistake me mentioning these passes as meaning I want to share some kind of achievement made; I merely want to point out that the only subjects I could pass while I was in this horrible useless place were the ones that did not require teachers’ input for me to actually do well in.
My education was a lot like the Supermarket Sweep gameshow, whereby there is a timer and everyone has to run around desperately trying to get the shopping in their trolley. It’s a failure as more items fall out of the shopping basket than are collected. Then the timer runs out and what you have left in your trolley is what your future will be in their eyes.
In my case, they looked at my randomly collected items (Art and RE) and concocted a makeshift plan for me. I was to move on to a BTEC Art course, which, I was told, offered me an exciting and very bright future. I was reminded almost every day what an achievement it was to be a BTEC Art student, how I was heading towards an amazing and grand career.
I was told I should consider myself lucky and be grateful and that there was nothing else in the entire world I could be doing. They said this would be my whole life and it was too late to change anything.
I am absolutely horrified and disgusted that anyone would say what they said to the 16-year-old me. This was the most damaging lie I was ever told and it set me back years.
While I was doing this life-changing course, I re-sat GCSE English and failed it again for the same reasons I’d failed it the previous time. I did pass it the third time around, however, and I also passed the BTEC art with a perfect grade as it was the easiest thing I’d ever done in my life and nearly impossible to fail.
As an adult now with some life experience and understanding, I am absolutely horrified and disgusted that anyone would say what they said to the 16-year-old me. This was the most damaging lie I was ever told and it set me back years.
Unfortunately, the lunacy didn’t end there as I was then commanded to move onto A level Art. Apparently, this was what I wanted! I don’t really remember ever discussing what would happen after the BTEC. I was simply told that the BTEC’s only purpose was to move students to the A level.
I found myself in a panic. I’d never wanted to do the BTEC and was told I had no choice and I never wanted to do the A level art either but was again told I had no choice. It was like I was being thrown head-first down rapids with my hands tied. I had no ability to cling to any rocks and gather my bearings.
They didn’t respect me enough to allow me the dignity of choosing what my own future would be and there was no discussion or information sharing about what the A level Art could be used for. To make things more hilarious for you, they also said that I HAD to go to university to do an Art degree and that I also had no choice about that either!
Most of the way through the A level course I was dealing with medical issues relating to my disability as well as a neglect case regarding my hospital that had been bubbling away for some time until it finally reached its ugly conclusion. Long story short, I had to have major surgery on my spine and then spend a long and tedious time recovering.
They didn’t respect me enough to allow me the dignity of choosing what my own future would be.
I’d worn a back brace almost all of my life; it helped me breath and propped me up and I couldn’t physically do anything without it. After the operation, I had to learn to rehabilitate my atrophied muscles and train them to not need it, so I went back to sixth form without it on.
That was the first time since I was three that I had been outside without wearing it. I was so exhausted and in a lot of pain and constantly trying to catch my breath every time I made even a slight movement.
Unfortunately for me, the time I’d spent trying not to die was considered not good sixth form student behaviour and a meeting was called to discuss the possibility of me being kicked off the course. They said they no longer believed I could pass and should just leave. They told me I had two options: stay on the A level course until the end and cross my fingers and hope for the best or leave and accept no one in the school would help me to find anything else I could do instead. Obviously, I chose to stay on. I had come all this way; if I left now, it would be as if two years of my life had been thrown in the bin.
I tried desperately to make up for lost time, but in the end I got an abysmal grade that was unusable. I actually did question this as I didn’t agree with it. I had originally been predicted an A or B grade so I thought I’d get a C or D now that I’d had so much time off; however, what I got was lower than any of these grades. It was like I’d been given the result of a different person.
The exact words he said to me: “I don’t care what happens to you. I can’t do anything to help you and I don’t want to help you.
When I questioned the teacher and brought her attention to my ability as well as fact that I had done a great deal of work, she basically said this year obviously hadn’t been good for me, that there were some forms I hadn’t filled out, that one of my final pieces was weak and that I deserved a U grade (ungraded) for almost all my modules.
However, all was not lost, apparently. I was then told to go and see the school’s trusted and incredibly useful careers adviser. When I turned up at his office, these are the exact words he said to me: “I don’t care what happens to you. I can’t do anything to help you and I don’t want to help you. I really don’t care at all.” During the conversation he also dangled some false hope in front of me. He said these words: “There’s a job I can give out to whoever I want, a job working in a museum guiding people around. You could do that.”
“Great, I’d like to do that then,” I replied.
“Well I’m not gonna give it to you because you’d just show me up and ruin my reputation by being late and I’m not having my reputation ruined just because you can’t get to work as fast as everyone else,” he said, nodding towards my wheelchair.
After taking a deep calming breath and resisting the urge to use the strength I had built up in my arms from years of pushing myself up hills to put my fist in his face, I asked: “What should I do then?”
He then replied: “Oh I don’t know, go and try to get a job. All you have to do is try once and you’d get one straight away. I have nothing more to say to you. I don’t care and I can’t help you.” He then got up and left, and that was the last conversation I ever had with anyone in that school.
I quickly realised in my first year of adulthood that people don’t really want to hire disabled people and it was impossible to get people to even consider me for jobs, even ones that required no qualifications, so I tried to go back to college to re-sit maths and English GCSE and then do art related things.
I quickly realised in my first year of adulthood that people don’t really want to hire disabled people.
But the school was in many ways still in my head and still causing problems. I needed them to give me a copy of all my qualifications to prove to the college that I’d passed GCSE English; however the school ignored all the emails I sent to them and I missed the deadline. I then had to wait a year to re-enrol to do English and maths GCSEs again, which would take another year. Only then could I start the art course, which would take two years.
After realising that the school cared so little about me that they’d knowingly let me go through a two-year period of wasted time after having previously made me waste three years, I gave up trying to do things the way they’d suggested.
I learned quickly that all their advice was either wrong, outdated or just lies. Listening to what the school had told me and following their advice had made me miserable and got me nowhere and their failure to do this one small act of kindness was the final nail in the coffin for me. I was done with them and I washed my hands of the school and the broken pathway it had put me on.
I learned quickly that all their advice was either wrong, outdated or just lies.
When I accepted that they really had never had any intention of helping me at all, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I finally asked myself what I wanted to do. I wanted to do science; this was my instant answer.
And, with some encouragement that’s exactly what I did. I went back to college. College was much better than school. They even managed to find the English GCSE I’d passed in the first year of sixth form and it helped me get two science GCSEs, one a grade six the other a grade seven, which for you people who don’t know means B and A. I also did my maths GCSE again. I did the foundation first, which only goes up to grade C and I got that C. I then used those grades to get onto an A level chemistry course, which I’m doing now.
Because I enjoyed maths at the college so much, I decided to do the Higher GCSE, which goes higher than a C and I managed to get grade seven, which is the same as an A. I then used this to get onto A level physics and maths courses, which I’m doing now alongside A level chemistry. I have never once needed any help from a teacher to do A level maths and physics since I gained a lot of mathematical fluency from the Higher GCSE.
I’m turning my life around and finally getting the education and qualifications I’d always deserved and that’s really positive. But I want to do more than that. I want to raise awareness of how schools can fail disabled people by bullying them and discriminating against them.
To do this I prepared a presentation on my experience to deliver to school pupils. Before I did a real presentation, I practiced in front of certain individuals, one of whom offered me a job, effectively as a mathematician for his business. Since maths is science related, I can apply this work experience to all three of my A levels. Also, this work experience is paid, permanent and full of transferable skills.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my experiences it’s that deciding to do what I truly wanted to do was the best decision I’d ever made.
And I’ll leave you with this piece of advice: if anyone ever tells you that you have no choice but to do something and that thing doesn’t involve your health or the law, then there’s probably an ulterior motive behind it that has nothing to do with you.