In this episode, I talk with Dr Patricia McCarthy, a visiting research fellow from Trinity College Dublin and passionate advocate for disability and inclusion rights in education.
Patricia shares her own experiences of being educated as a blind/physically impaired student from the 1970s and the barriers she overcame to achieve her PhD. She talks about being perceived as an oddity of being doubly disabled and feeling less able than her peers because she couldn’t walk as well as them. Patricia struggled with masking her disability through adulthood and reflecting on the stigma of the ‘white cane’ as if something was wrong with having a disability. It wasn’t until her experiences in higher education and the maturity that comes along with being an adult, that she realised the importance of disclosure.
Patricia is passionate about trying to improve awareness around the low incidence of people who are blind/vision impaired in education and specifically the very low percentage of those who go on to postgraduate study. When there is significant amounts of reading that is required in higher level education, access to readable texts and resources, as well as support, is a major challenge and hindrance for many students. She says that it is frustrating to be constantly on the backfoot waiting for someone to put resources and reading materials in a format that you can read, and students with disabilities are constantly trying to play catch up.
Patricia explains that often the voice of those with disabilities is often diminished by experts that are supporting them. Considerations and decisions for the students are often made very early on in their education and they have little support or voice in the decisions that are made for them. The findings from her research centered around themes of identity, access and transition. The education system as it is now, isn’t always designed to include the disabled person and to engage them in a positive and authentic manner. It seems that blind and disabled students in higher education are more the exception rather than the rule.
Focus must always be on ability rather than focusing on disability. She says that there needs to be more awareness around how community, society and educators can support all students and not limit them during their formative years based on their disability. Just because they have a disability, it is only part and parcel of who they are as a person and education should look at the individual and the whole person. Currently, the education system isn’t designed in a way to enable disabled people to engage meaningfully.
We won’t always get it right, but we are so much better for actively and authentically trying! Ensuring that everyone is included means thinking beyond only people with disabilities. We are all unique and have different needs for living and learning. We need to move from a position that a ‘someone’ is the designated person to look after the issues around inclusion or around disability, or whatever it might be and genuinely move to a position where actually inclusion is everybody’s business. It is a mindset shift that would move away from the dichotomy of ability and disability. Inclusion is never an end point, rather more like a wheel where people are getting on and off.
There is a deep appreciation for the person who authentically tries. When you are genuinely aware and thinking about inclusion in everyday settings rather than just practicing it only in certain settings. We need to work within the diversity of our system and not exclude others. In many ways it is an attitudinal shift, we all do things differently and learn differently regardless of disability or not.
We finish up the conversation with a discussion around Patricia’s guide dog, Gaston, and the twitter account she created using Gaston as the author to help create awareness about inclusion and disability issues in society and community. It is a good way to educate people about the work of a guide dog, and certain aspects of what they do and some of the barriers that society places illegally on guide dogs due to ignorance of policies and legislation.
Patricia’s passion and enthusiasm for educating others on inclusion for everyone is certainly ignited through this conversation. Come #ListenAndLearn
UDL Document resource: