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Breaking down the Barriers of Prejudice in Education

We have a long way to go before we really start to celebrate difference and disability in this country

Article by Richard Hogan - Irish Examiner

When I was in primary school, dyslexia disrupted my education. It made me feel different and, at times, stupid. Today, as I write this, I am hurtling over the Atlantic towards America. In 2020 I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship. My research explores how we can better promote inclusion in the modern classroom. I certainly felt excluded at times over the course of my education, and it is that child in me that drives me in this pursuit for inclusion. Over the years, I have seen how students can really feel excluded, scapegoated and fail to thrive in the educational system. 

It's hard to express what I want to say about inclusion because it is such a complicated issue and so many people today are still marginalised in our progressive society. We hear a lot of talk about it, but often we lack a clear plan in how to include those left behind because of disability, learning difficulty, class or gender, etc. Last week, I wrote about pride week and the importance of teaching our children to be proud of themselves. We must put the same effort into celebrating those less able in our society. Often society's limiting view can have a disabling impact on a disabled person.

I have been incredibly privileged in my life to meet some wonderful academics who have guided me on my journey. I grew up in Cork, never really had a solid male role model, but when I started my PhD I met professor Michael Shevlin. I wrote to him one evening when I was thinking about studying in Trinity College Dublin. I guess I thought I’d never hear from him but the next morning he wrote back and was incredibly encouraging and we met. 

That is something I’ve noticed about people who are genuine and passionate, they are accessible. That morning I met more than a professor, I met a friend and a mentor.
Richard Horgan

Over the years I've often find myself sitting with Michael hearing stories about his wife Kathleen O’Leary. Kate, as she was known to her friends, was born with brittle bone condition to a family in rural Cork. Michael recently allowed me to read her writings on living with a disability in Ireland. It was some of the most powerful and insightful writing I have read. Unfortunately, Kate died due to her condition early in her remarkable life, but Michael continues Kate’s fight. He developed the Trinity Centre for People with Intellectual Disabilities, empowering those disempowered by society. 

It has been one of the great privileges of my life to be invited into Kate’s story. In Kate’s own words she grew up in "a time where no services existed - no social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists, education experts, or school bus services… I was taught to spell while my mother peeled the potatoes… my early engagement with the world was lived vicariously through hearing much-envied stories of my" siblings school adventures. 

As I read these words I was reminded of my own grandmother’s twin sister, Mary Donovan. She developed Polio at the age of six and never walked again. My grandmother would often tell me about how Mary would watch them playing from the window or be waiting at the door when they came in from school to hear all about their day. I fondly recall being with Mary as a child. We would all just step over her as she crawled around the house tidying up. I was too young to understand how difficult her life had been, she certainly never spoke about it but as I look back now, of course, losing the ability to walk at such a crucial age must have been devastating. We all loved her because she gave us so much time. 

I find it interesting that my grandmother and her siblings were born in America and came back to Ireland after their mother died from the Spanish flu over a hundred years ago, and now I’m heading back to America during another pandemic to carry out research on inclusivity in our schools. There is a slight feeling the hand of providence is at work. The Ireland Mary arrived into was like the Ireland Kate wrote about. There was nothing in the way of support. Ideas about disability were myopic, linear and limited any child born with a disability. It took people like Kate, who refused to accept society's concept of what was possible, to break down the barriers of prejudice.

We have a long way to go before we really start to celebrate difference and disability in this country. The myriad rainbow flags all around the country last month were uplifting to see. We need a similar celebration for those of us who are not as able as others so we can teach them how to speak more positively to themselves about who they are and what their potential is. We must finally stop limiting people because we don’t understand the limitless potential we all have when we free ourselves from restricting paradigms.