Things I Did Differently at School as a Disabled Child

image of Gem Turner in her wheelchair at school

Before I start this blog post, I’m sure most people will have been reading, sharing and wanting to understand the world and what they can do a little more recently around the Black Lives Matter movement. If you’ve been wanting to do “something” to be part of this, but you’re not quite sure what – I’d urge you to read into my friend Melz’ GoFundMe page, The Free Black University. This fund will be used to transform and educate. I’ve worked with Melz in my sabbatical officer days and I know how passionate and powerful they are at what they do. There is a full list of long term goals to complete on their page and it looks incredible. So please do have a look and donate if you are able, whilst also continuing the movement however you can. 

The Free Black University Logo

When I look back on school, they were (mostly) happy times. I went to mainstream school and was the only wheelchair user around me up until college. I was thinking recently about the little tweaks I had to make life as easy as possible and thought I’d chat about them, because some I liked, and some not so much… 

Cutting my exercise books

As someone with small limbs, I found it really hard to reach most A4 books. Already I would be prone to breaking my hand and arm from writing too much so stretching would be something that was just too much. So, I remember one day in Year 10 a teacher announced we would be now having A4 books and my heart dropped. “This is going to be tricky” I thought but being a shy teenager of course I didn’t say anything. In fact, I think I used humour as I did a lot to show I was questioning if this was doable. “Woah, that’s as big as me, that”. My teacher watched me trying to write my name on the front as a stretched as far as I could and she said “shall I guillotine it in half Gemma?”. Subtly done, no fuss. I breathed a sigh of relief and nodded. I could finally write my name in swirly nice writing like everyone else did (can you remember the important job of writing your name on your exercise book!?) Those were the days… 

Leaving or entering class 5 minutes early or later 

As my high school was quite big with lots of doors, it was suggested that I leave or enter class when it was quiet to avoid crowds. I think this was mainly because as I was growing up I wasn’t very well practiced driving my wheelchair in crowds and I would break a bone from a simple knock from somebody. Looking back, I think I remember hating this, having what I called my carer waiting for me outside knowing I had to pack up before everyone else. I think I ended up just asking if I could leave later after a while, that way I could chat with my friends and they could come with me. We all remember that important goss/debrief after class. 

Sitting at an adjustable table 

My wheelchair was naturally taller than the seats of my friends in primary school so I found it hard to park up and lean on to write and work. So I remember having a crank adjustable table which would sit at the side of a group of tables. Honestly, although it was an adjustment that meant I could physically be involved, I hated this table. I remember it being a deal. I had to have one friend sit next to me, and I remember feeling stressed when I was allowed to pick which friend it would be. Remember the drama of picking friends for anything at primary school? I’m sweating just thinking about it. I don’t know what I’d pick now at my age, I suppose I’d pick the same… maybe…

Always sitting near the door

I remember one thing really clearly throughout school and even university, and that’s choosing where to sit (or the lack of choice). Sitting next to your friends at school was a big deal. You’d obviously choose friends you click with and stay away from people you don’t want to sit with. But for me as a wheelchair user, I always was told to sit near the door as “it’s easier”. When I look back now I think why? Easier for who? Being young and disabled, I had so much fuss over me that I DID NOT cause any more. If I could go back, I would have loved to have asked why can’t I sit anywhere in the room? Moving chairs and tables isn’t really that big of a deal really is it? It’s all about how you present a situation. Anything can become the norm if you make it the default right? 

Having “SEN” reviews 

Ah SEN reviews. For those who don’t know, these are “special educational needs” meetings discussing a child’s progress throughout school. Think parents evening – times 100. Yeah. I remember secretly loving the attention sometimes, just being honest here folks. Especially if I got praise. But I also remember keeping this side very separate to my friends. I’d never discuss this with them. For me personally, I really dislike the term “special needs” because it implies that you’re going the extra mile when really you’re just adapting something in order for someone to do things like everyone else. You shouldn’t have to feel like everyone’s moving the world for you just to go to school. I do respect the community though and know it is such a supportive community, especially for parents.

The reviews felt a little bit like “This is your life”. Different specialists would go around the room and announce my progress. You can imagine the intensity. It was all in all fine really but I do remember the most dramatic moment being one specialist recommending I have a clear pencil case so I could see all of my pens. I remember being horrified as I just wanted my groovy chick pencil case. I mean who wouldn’t? I think that kind of sums up my whole thoughts of adjustments at school. Some adjustments will be necessary, but if some are purely logistical – be sure to get the balance right so that a person’s personality, feelings and interests can still be respected. 

They are just a few things I can remember, there are probably loads more I’ll think of later. If so, I may do a part 2! Did you have any adjustments and would you do anything differently?

If you enjoyed this you may also like…

Empowering disabled people to be more independent

Explaining disability to children

To the families I meet with disabled children

2 thoughts on “Things I Did Differently at School as a Disabled Child

  1. Jill

    I liked reading this Gem – as it’s on reflection isn’t it.
    I agree about the term Special
    Could that be something that might be changed in future do you reckon from SEN to Just Educational Needs ?

    EN not much different suits everyone everyone is the same

    The clear pencil case made me realise some people will just
    invent an adaptation when it’s not relevant.

    1. Gem Turner

      Thank you Jill! Yes it’s interesting isn’t it. I really like the term adjustment like some workplaces have too. Yes I agree, I’m all about the groovy chick pencil case!

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