How an inclusive education taught me how to deal with my spina bifida and achieve at school and beyond.
I was born with spina bifida. Understandably, my parents had concerns about my wellbeing and they knew that I would have special needs, which they felt might not be catered for in Singapore, the place of my birth. Following discussions with family and friends, it was agreed that the chances of receiving better healthcare for me would be improved by emigration to another country. It was a massive step for my parents to take, but the idea of moving to England was a decisive one.
While my parents clearly thought that better health and support facilities in England would help me considerably, I don’t think even they envisaged just how well things were going to turn out for me.
Even before I started any schooling, I was encouraged by my parents to be active, and they were keen to get me doing as much as possible. I may have had some physical restrictions, but there was no reason why I couldn’t be active in some way.
Needless to say, my first memories of school (attending a special needs nursery) are somewhat limited, though I do remember feeling a part of “normal” school life. As the other children had a range of disabilities, I accepted that everyone had their own needs and it was all part of growing up.
Into the mainstream
Somewhere along the line, it was decided that I would benefit from going to a mainstream school. I’m not entirely sure who’s decision it was, but I soon found myself going along to a mainstream nursery once a week. From the initial weekly sessions, I was slowly integrated into full-time attendance at the nursery, and my life as a disabled child in a mainstream school had started.
To assist with the transition to primary school, I was provided with my own welfare assistant, Val, who was there for me throughout my time in infant and junior school. I settled in well at the new school and took part in pretty much everything that the class did. I was given the option, and opportunity, to do exactly the same things as my classmates, albeit with some allowances in the more physical aspects of school, such as PE lessons, sports days and school trips.
In my opinion, this inclusive approach was crucial to my integration at school; it was a big step for all concerned as it involved educating teachers and my friends about what my physical capabilities were. Although I didn’t realise it then, the options provided to me gave me a sense of confidence and enabled me to focus on the things that I could do, rather than the things that I couldn’t do – something I have carried forward into adulthood.
I always enjoyed PE and at school sports days I was encouraged to get involved and take part. Although some of the activities needed modifying for me, I was still able to contribute to the points total gained by my team, which gave me a real sense of achievement and belonging. I wasn’t just the disabled kid, making up the numbers – I was part of a team.
Reaching for independence
While my involvement at junior school was very much the same as it had been at infant school, my needs were changing and I also wanted to experience more independence.
To allow me to sample this, my welfare assistant was given other roles within the school, so that I could remain seated with my classmates, without someone constantly sitting nearby throughout lesson time. I was allowed to request assistance as and when I needed it, with Val soon on hand to help out on such occasions.
Inevitably, my confidence grew and I soon wanted to be like my peers – having the freedom and independence to work and play without having someone looking over my shoulder all the time. This was a big turning point in my school life, not just for me, but for my friends as well.
Rather than having my assistant by my side during play time and lunchtime, I wanted to play with my friends – having a kick-about in the playground, going in goal (on my knees) on the field, or sitting on the ground playing with my toy cars.
My friends rallied around to help when needed, and were more than happy to involve me in any of the social activities within school. By that age, they’d already realised that I had my own needs and they were supportive of what I was trying to achieve. Furthermore, they were also very protective of me, particularly from those in other classes who were less understanding of my disability.
I had definitely discovered independence and had shown teachers and my welfare assistant that I was more than capable of managing a number of things on my own. Introducing me to my class at an early age helped to educate my classmates to the extent that they knew that there were going to be differences, and they therefore accepted this as the norm. Obviously, greater independence also gave me a massive confidence boost; I was no longer disabled – just differently able.
Moving up to secondary school
My junior school had started me on the road to success and independence. However, it was at comprehensive school that I truly developed into a confident and determined individual.
The step up to a secondary school was a massive concern for my parents, welfare assistant and teachers alike. Many questions were asked about my ability to cope in a school where the lifestyle would be different in every way to that which I was used to.
Practical considerations, such as moving between classrooms, going upstairs and managing PE lessons, were all important, and there were also concerns regarding my mobility and having the use of a suitable toilet facility. However, one-by-one, these issues were addressed and I was soon functioning happily at the school.
The school already had ramps in place, I was provided with my own personal disabled toilet (for which I had the key), and I was given permission to take refuge in the nurse’s room as and when I needed to (and also during break times if I didn’t feel up to heading outdoors). This wasn’t always an offer I took up but, now and then, the option of getting away from it all was very handy. My timetable was also modified to ensure that all my classes were in ground floor rooms or in accessible portakabins.
Once again, my peers soon realised my capabilities and they rallied around where they could to assist me, but without patronising me or wrapping me in cotton wool. I was a student like everyone else, had homework like everyone else and, needless to say, had the occasional telling off like everyone else too.
Teachers treated me no differently to any other student. A basic understanding of the physical requirements I had and some empathy towards my disability were all it took for me to feel settled. Student life in secondary school was soon to develop even further and it was with the help of the PE department that I got a taste of what I could achieve.
Rather than exclude me from PE lessons that weren’t practical for me, I was provided with options of sports activities that I could do, in some instances with a classmate or two of my choice.
I always avoided rugby on the field and tended instead to opt for tennis or badminton. I was even given the opportunity to take part in cross country running, although my route involved slight detours to avoid grass or any muddy areas. When others took part in athletics and hurdles, I had extra practice with the javelin and shot putt. In rounders, I took my turn at batting while someone was nominated to run for me.
The key thing at both primary and secondary school was that I was given flexibility, options, and opportunities to try different things. The schools never obstructed me by saying that I couldn’t do anything. The focus was very much on what I wanted to do and what I could do. It would have been easy for teachers to let me sit in a classroom or the library during lessons, but they were adamant that I take part in PE and other school activities.
All this made me look at what I was able to do rather than taking the easy way out and just not doing anything at all. I had evolved from a disabled child into a disabled student, and then simply into a student, just like everyone else at school.
Spurred on by my experiences at school, my interest and expertise in sport have developed throughout my life. I have enjoyed a fair bit of success as an international para-badminton player and today I am European Champion in men’s doubles and ranked world number two in men’s singles. I was also honoured to be selected as an Olympic torchbearer in Stevenage in July 2012. Without the support and encouragement I received at school, I very much doubt that any of this would have been possible.
Looking to the future
With all the modernisation and upgrading of school facilities that has taken place recently, and with an emphasis of better provision for disabled students, I hope that the inclusive ethos I experienced will come to be the norm in all schools. In order for children to have an understanding of disabilities and how they are dealt with in day-to-day life, such integration is essential. For those with a disability, greater support and empathy shown by others would certainly serve to provide much needed boosts to their confidence and self-esteem, which can be further challenged when they reach adulthood.
I am truly thankful to all the staff at my schools for supporting me in all that I did. My welfare assistant was particularly influential and also helped to educate my classmates and show them that a person with a disability can be a success.
School life is always going to be difficult, whatever your ability, but having measures in place that demonstrate understanding and show a willingness to be flexible can take schools a long way towards supporting all their students. If there is one single thing that needs to be remembered, it is this: disability is not inability.
Gobi Ranganathan was a highways engineer for 12 years and now works for the charity Shine, which helps families and individuals affected by spina bifida and hydrocephalus: