We’ve had endless conversations about you writing your story down and finding a way to share it. I also told you about this blog and that I wanted to write about teaching you. I decided soon after our conversation, I would write it in the form of a letter because, to teach you, there had to be a protected and safe space, which did fall away as time went on, but I’m going to step back into that now and share with those listening in a small part of your story. The rest of it is yours and yours to tell.
As a hospital teacher, I’m assigned my key students which means I am responsible for their education whilst with us, as well as links and reintegration into their home school. When you were assigned to me, I read your notes and knew that your illness had left you bedbound. I quietly knocked on your hospital door and was invited in – I introduced myself; staying for 10 seconds and then left not wanting to invade your space further. Because that’s the thing about teaching in a ward bedroom – it is still your bedroom, and I didn’t want to bring the full force of education and all that could trigger into our first visit.
At first, I didn’t know what to expect from your academic abilities and I would visit you regularly taking photos of animals until we found something to talk about. You’ve told me these early days are a blur to you, but I can tell you that I first realised how smart you were when you told me that you had been teaching yourself Spanish. Later, I learnt that beneath the pain and trauma you had quite a sense of humour as you demonstrated your Australian accent which you had been working on.
Lessons continued with you curled on your side so you could see me, and the pace picked up. It was an incredible moment when it dawned on me that you loved learning and although your body was limiting you, your mind was soaring. I had never worked with anyone as disabled as you, and together we tried to work out how you could type or use your phone (your only learning device at the time) without your hands. In the end, you learned the best way was to use a mouth stick to push against your phone screen. Over the years, you became faster at this until you were able to take your A-Level exams, using that same mouth stick five years later.
I wish your journey to access education had been straightforward, but unfortunately, as I learnt through you – the education system is not set up to help young people with your disabilities – almost as if the system hasn’t caught up that the mind can be brilliant whilst the body can be a daily struggle. You weren’t able to get a statement of educational needs entitling you to support because your local authority said you were receiving medical treatment in London. You returned to Northern Ireland after discharge with no school in place that could support you, so we, a small hospital school in North London, carried on teaching you over zoom. Covid afforded you one thing, and that was you were to be entered for your GCSEs. Still, no educational support in Belfast and so we continued teaching you whilst you started your A Levels, and then as time went on, we had to find a way for you to take your exams. This, in itself, has been a horrific journey with no educational establishment willing to support you, and we, being that school in London, didn’t know anyone in Belfast to plead your case. You rang 40 schools in Northern Ireland desperately asking them if they could help you take your exams and were met with consistent rejection. Flying to London to sit the exams with us wasn’t an option for you until finally the online A-Level course we had purchased for you, offered the opportunity to sit the exams with them.
And then issues with disabled students taking exams really showed itself. Yes, you had been given home invigilation and 50 % extra time, but you weren’t allowed to have your English set texts downloaded when you couldn’t physically hold books to turn pages. You were sick with anxiety about how you would use your mouth stick fast enough to write within the timing, and then there was the issue of the biology exams and the sketch you had to do when you can’t hold a pencil…
You did do it though – because you are an amazing, resilient, and inspiring human being.
You did it!
You sat your A-Levels.
You did not let the limitations of the system limit you and I could not be prouder to be your teacher.
I hope you do get the grades to study Law at Ulster University and go on to campaign for the rights of disabled people because, in the end, it was you holding onto hope that was the force which opened those doors for you to access education.
I know that through you, I have learnt two things that need to change for us to have a fairer society:
Addressing social inequality should begin with addressing the inequality in access to education.
If you would like to learn more about Ellern Mede Ridgeway, please click here.