Disability History Month – celebrating inclusive education

Published Date
25/11/2016

It’s Disability History Month (22 November – 22 December) and Trailblazers Campaigns Officer, Michaela Hollywood, has blogged about a fascinating story behind the history of inclusive education.

As a young disabled person going through school, I often found myself reading books from the 19th century.  Among my favourites were essays and short stories written by American literary greats such as Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Both these authors were friends with Bronson Alcott – the father of Little Woman author Louisa May Alcott.

During the mid-1800’s, schools such as Perkins School were founded, teaching blind, deaf and deafblind students including Helen Keller, who is renowned for being the first person with disabilities to go to university.  Keller is often regarded by the disability community as one of the most prominent disability rights advocates in our history, spearheading the notion of equal education for people like me.

I was born in 1990 into a family who already had disability integrated into it.  My sister was born with a muscle-wasting condition, but at the time of my birth the concern was focused on the fact that I had come into the world with no ears.  It was quickly confirmed that I was deaf, and by the time I was 10 days old I was using my first hearing aid.  By the age of 8 months it was confirmed that I too had spinal muscular atrophy, and I would live what could be a very short life from my wheelchair.

As it happens, I’m now 26 and have gone through education up to a Masters at Ulster University.  But accessing education – mainstream education – was not always easy.  My education did eventually end up at court, where I won a case under the Disability Discrimination Act.  As a 17 year old girl spending my summer days off school in a courtroom, I would cast my mind back to what would have happened to disabled people during the 1800’s, a period I had learnt much about through books.

Bronson Alcott has quite a public legacy of being an educational reformist.  He founded schools where he would debate religion, English and other subjects with pupils as young as 6 years old.  A supporter of the abolition of slavery, Alcott once introduced an African American child into his classroom, and parents withdrew their children in protest at his refusal to expel the child.

A lesser known story, however, is his commitment to educate all children.  Louisa May Alcott would teach alongside her father in Concord, Massachusetts.  According to journals held at Orchard House, the Alcott family were known for educating disabled children in their classrooms – alongside non-disabled children.

In 2016, we still hear stories of disabled people coming up against obstacles preventing them from enjoying and learning in an integrated environment, something that benefits all of society.  Yet, in the 1800’s we had a man and his daughter, single-handedly removing those barriers and educating children together in one classroom.

This disability history month, I always think of those that have come and gone before us.  They were undoubtedly subjected to harsh discrimination, with little they could do to overcome it.  We are now in a better position, thanks to the innovation and dedication of those who have gone before us.

Do you have a story for disability history month that you’d like to share? Comment below or contact us if you’d like to write a blog.

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