It’s a Sin — My “Special” School Days
New to this story? Start here with chapter one
Chapter 5: Stormy Seas
One of the side effects of being a physically impaired child is the obligatory perceived need for physiotherapy. The purveyors of this craft were light-heartedly referred to as physio-terrorists rather than physiotherapists; however, there was a bite behind the jibe.
Just like the caring, nursing profession, the physio profession was mainly the domain of women, adding an exotic, erotic, element. Being manipulated on a mat or across a roller was the most fun a teenage boy could have with his clothes on. In fact, scrap that, it was the most fun he could have full stop. That isn’t strictly true add a nubile young female physiotherapist in a swimsuit splashing around with you in a swimming pool then you have a vision of heavenly delight. I hope I have managed to sketch a vivid enough picture.
Speech therapists were another group of attractive ladies. But it did not matter how much I tried to convince them otherwise, I could not convince that I had a speech defect.
An interesting sidebar is that years later when I left the Scope home in Birmingham and moved into my first flat starting my journey into independence, the second part of my life, as I described earlier, a lot of the agency staff refused to work with me, claiming they could not understand a word I said. So, a broad Geordie accent in 80s Newcastle was not seen as an impediment; ten years later, it was as a foreign language to the inhabitants of a West Midlands city.
If only I’d known this when pleading with those sexy speech therapists to give me some of their time. I could have asked them to help me to parlay properly when I moved down south.
So far, I have portrayed myself as the victim of this story. If I am to be honest with myself and you the reader, that is not the entire truth: I became a perpetrator as well as a victim.
When I informed my friend via Facebook that I was writing this piece. His response was to say that people complain about special schools, but his experience was that he was never submitted to bullying in our school like he experienced in mainstream school when he was transferred there. Hence, he now looks upon those days with kindness.
I am not going to disagree with his perspective; for one thing I do not have that right. But my recollections are slightly different bullying went on in our school just as it went on in every other school. I say this not as one who was bullied but one who did the bullying. I take no pride in confessing this, I am just stating a fact.
People imagine that the cloistered community that existed outside, alongside, the outside world was a place of innocence and tranquillity. Well, let me quash such ideas. The environment inside the bubble mirrored in many ways what existed outside the charity society. Then just as now the hierarchy of disability existed and thrived. What may be shocking to realise was that the hierarchy within my special school system was not based on physical ability but on intellectual agility and prowess.
When Charles Darwin wrote about the “survival of the fittest” he obviously never spent anytime in a ‘special school’. There, it was the “survival of the ruthless”. Those with mental ability and agility rose to thrive.
I quickly honed my mind, my tongue, and my wit into a rapier shape weapon at first to defend, but there is a fine line between defence and offence, between being oppressed and and being the oppressor, a line easily crossed, a line I crossed more than once. To my adult shame!
Looking back, the seeds of the hierarchy of disability that haunt the disabled movement to this day were planted in such places. For those readers unaware, the hierarchy of disability is when one group of impaired people think they are less disabled or oppressed then another, therefore see themselves as superior to another. This of course is nonsense, but it suits society to perpetuate such a myth.
During the 1970s, integrated education began and some pupils who should never have been at our school were able to go home. This meant friendships were lost. We that were left always felt jealous of those able to go to mainstream education, but after hearing some horror stories of early integration we were reminded the grass is not always greener… and to be careful what you wish for.
As an adolescent I drank a vast amount of alcohol which led to a situation which to this day I look back on with a shame and embarrassment. There was an amazing teacher who led the school’s junior scout club. She did everything humanly possible to make the experience magical. I had the privilege of the experience as a youngster. But when I was caught hiding our empties as a tipsy teenager, I gave her dogs abuse. I still to this day have nightmares over that.
I have portrayed my years in Special Ed. as hell on earth but of course there were some good times thrown in. Let me regale you of some of those times
I have already made mention of my cub scout days and weekends spent integrated under canvas with other non-disabled packs. I particularly remember one occasion where another boy was asked to watch me on the toilet to ensure I did not fall off; unfortunately for me he was negligent in his duties, I fell off even worse the portable loo, landed on me covering me in other boy’s shit. That was the first but not the last time I was shat upon. Having said that these weekends were on the whole a pleasurable experience.
Such trips were not confined to cubs as an older groups Mr O’Dowd would take the senior classes on weeks away. One such trip which sticks out in my memory a week in Edinburgh.
My Aunty Margaret and her family at that time lived in Edinburgh and as we were there, she came to see me. It was a sunny day and therefore we went outside to talk. Whilst we were talking a wheelchair came flying past at breakneck speed, I automatically screamed at the top of my voice to the boy in the chair to get his lazy fat arse out of the wheelchair. My Aunty looked at me aghast telling me “you can’t say that”, just at that moment the boy got out the chair and started pushing it back past us. My aunty and I look at each other and burst out laughing. I knew the chair was not his and he was just joyriding in it.
For years later, my aunty and I would giggle about that. Years later when she was using a scooter before she died, we toured the grounds of Alnwick castle: she was in her scooter, me in my electric chair and suddenly that story had more poignancy.
Another trip which I must mention turned out a living nightmare. Newcastle University contacted the school and someone in their wisdom thought it would a good idea to allow a group of drunken students to take a group of disabled pupils out into the wilds of nowhere for a weekend.
So off we went with cans of beans and more cans of beer. We ended up in a barn on the edge of Holy Island. To this day I am unsure who was responsible for whom — the whole weekend passed in a drunken haze,
That in itself would not have been so bad, had not a certain Kevin I shall not say his full name, had not been scared of the dark and convinced me to go and sit outside the privy while he had a pee. Unfortunately for me he neglected to put my chair brakes on, so while he was merrily peeing, I rolled over a 6-footstep landing on my face. I awoke hours later lying on the floor dazed, not knowing who I was, where I was. With a face that resembled Frankenstein’s ugly brother. They did not deem it necessary to call an ambulance. If I had not been stinking drunk, I swear I could have died that night.
Needless to say, that particular experiment was quickly shelved once the extend of the horror was told. I think the state of my face and hands told the full story. If I correctly recall Paul’s mum threatened to take the story to the local press.
PHAB (Physically Handicapped Able Bodied) clubs became the vogue around those times. Let me tell you of my experience of PHAB.
Our school was paired with a comprehensive school from one of the roughest areas of inner-city Newcastle. When we went there (as far as I recall we always went to their territory, they never ventured onto our turf), it was like a scene from West Side Story, the PH Sharks on one side of the hall, and the AB Jets on the opposite side, each side sizing up and staring down the other, wondering who would make the first move in the dance of integration.
New to this story? Start here with chapter one
For another view of those school days, see Rob’s review of Paul Hodgson’s autobiography Give Them WingsPosted on June 4, 2021 #socialChange #SpecialEducation #Robert