Today marks two decades since I started attending a ‘mainstream’ primary school on a full time basis. On March 13th, 1992, at the beginning of Week Eight, Term One, I along with nine other physically disabled students arrived at Mitcham Primary School in Adelaide to attend school for five days a week. I started at Mitcham on a part time basis two years before, first going there one day a week, and then progressing to two. My other days were spent at Regency Park Centre, a special school in every sense of the word.
One of the greatest gifts that each of the 10 children had were strong and determined parents. The move towards ‘mainstream’ full time schooling was literally years in the making. All the parents bonded together to lobby the Education Department because they believed that fighting for an inclusive education was what their child needed and most importantly, what they deserved. The bond between those parents and the battles they fought is something I know I take for granted often. Without them working hard to lobby the government I would not be where I am today. In many ways, the bond between our parents is stronger than the bond that their children have, somehow many of them have stayed in touch and remain close friends while their children have forged their own paths.
‘Mainstream’ schooling benefited me more than any therapy could. It allowed me to demonstrate that I was just as capable as my contemporaries, and develop skills that I still use to this day. It challenged me in a way that a ‘special school’ environment could not. It allowed me to be a typical primary schooler as I rejoiced in playing Duck, Duck Goose on Sports Day, learnt my times tables and traded Tazos at lunch time. Perhaps, best of all it normalised ‘disability’ for the rest of the school community, because at Mitcham we were not segregated: we were just ten students.
In this regard, credit must also be given to the staff. All my teachers at Mitcham Primary were fantastic, they encouraged me every step of the way, never allowing me to use my disability as a petty excuse. I could not have asked for a better education. They really were ahead of their time.
In the 1990s as disability models shifted from ‘instutionalisation’ to ‘inclusiveness’, the ‘Annex program at Mitcham Primary’ as it was known, helped pave the way for modern special needs education. If you asked my parents twenty years ago whether I would have achieved so much academically I doubt they would have believed you. Mitcham was the beginning of a long journey that made such things possible. And I am just one child. Twenty years later kids with disabilities still attend Mitcham. The legacy of our parents, the staff and those original ten students lives on in them.