One of the wonderful things about working in the lifelong learning sector is meeting people for whom education is a late-arrived gift.  Some people embrace it and others bring memories of their very worst experiences of the classroom.

My first encounter with an inclusive classroom came when I returned to FE many years ago after working in an international commercial organisation in their training department.  My children were small and I started teaching ICT to 16+ year olds in evening classes.

All was well until I received a letter from the supporting learning department of my college to inform me that my class would consist of a couple of students with additional learning needs, including one who had no hands.

(The point to consider is that this was an ICT class and students were expected to achieve a Level 2 in Computer Literacy and Information Technology (CLAIT) in 30 hours (3 hours per week for 10 weeks).)

While you might not think that this would present a problem in our 21st century world of voice recognition software, adaptability tech and simple online recording, this was in the mid 1990s and I had zero experience of any kind of disability.

This was the birth of the internet era and my expectations of my cohort were that they would be able bodied and – particularly - able to type.  In the letter from the supported learning department I was informed that the student would be assisted by an LSA in class, but my thought process went along the lines of “… well I can’t allow the LSA to type so what possibly could he/she do?”.

I was told that the student had come from a war-torn country, that his limbs had been removed because his uncle had been a member of a political party which was not in favour, and his family had been tortured and ostracised.  He had been sent to Europe to reinvent himself and gain as much security into adulthood as he could.

This did not give me comfort with my own sense of security as to how I was going to be able to help this student become a success in this subject.

Not in my classroom please!

So I argued with the supported learning department who assured me there was no cause for concern and that after the first lesson we could hopefully find a way forward.

But still I entered the classroom at the beginning of that term determined to rid myself any inconsistency within my student cohort.  (Hard to believe, I know!)

When I first met the student I realised that he had poor command of the English language which further fuelled my fear of setting him up to fail.

How wrong I was

I felt rather foolish when I comprehended that the LSA was present to help him fill out his forms, help him on/off with his jacket and get him a cup of tea at breaktime.  She also activated all the “sticky keys” and other disability functions on the PC, as well as working hard to translate.

But when the crunch came, I was most amazed when (despite my misgivings) the first thing the student did was place a pen between the stumps of his wrists and just got on with it.

What did I learn?

The biggest lesson was NOT to judge someone’s ability.  It was my own self-doubt in terms of student success which drove my wish to avoid a mixed ability class.  But having spent all those hours in the company of a truly determined young person it seems that it was, actually, my best lesson.