Opinion: A mother’s anguish – How the school system demonises children with disabilities


As a mother of two children with disabilities, we feel blessed. Our children teach us more than we can ever teach them.

They teach us how to appreciate the small things in life that others take for granted. They teach us how to celebrate every moment and, more importantly, how to treat each other.

However, in the education system our children are viewed as challenging, violent and a safety risk to others. We constantly hear about how hard it is for teachers having to “deal with our children” – demonising them in the media.

We are talking about New Zealand’s most vulnerable children. Children who have medical, developmental and learning conditions.

Children who are unable walk, talk, eat, communicate their needs, process instructions and regulate their emotions.

Children who become so overwhelmed and overloaded by the sensory load in the school environment that their brains explode from meltdowns, and it’s traumatic and painful.

The school environment with its traditional structures, expectations, rules and demands is challenging; the huge lack of understanding and training is challenging; the lack of support and funding is challenging; the discriminating attitudes are challenging – not our children.

The application process for support is undignified, difficult, long and, more often than not, it will be declined.

It focuses on how well you can describe your child as a monster. Schools give up on even trying.

The complaint process is biased and dangerous. If you speak up, you run the risk of putting yourself in the firing line and ultimately you make things worse for your child.

My children have been declined support, we have been turned away from early childhood centres and we have had to move schools.

We have experienced a nasty parent-blaming and child-blaming culture from the Ministry of Education and schools.

We have had a specialist call our child “manipulating”, we’ve had teachers completely disregard our child’s medical condition and medical advice, we’ve had teachers unwilling to listen to suggestions that work – resulting in traumatic meltdowns.

We’ve had our child come home from school screaming in pain from the sensory overload, and the teachers saying, “She is fine.”

We’ve had a teacher say to my daughter in front of her peers that “she’s had enough of her”.

Children are refused support, restrained, secluded, abused, stood down, dehumanised and bullied.

Our children have their basic human rights breached in our education system every day, but no one knows.

We don’t send our children to be treated like this. They are not challenging, violent and harmful – it’s the education system that is challenging, violent and harmful towards our children.

• Kataraina Werahiko is the mother of an 18-year-old son with Down syndrome and autism and a 9-year-old daughter with autism.

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