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Is the Secondary School System Ableist

By Jack Schofield (he/him) and Beth Dillon (she/her)

The image is an infographic with colourful blue and green rectangles in the background. In the foreground there are two photos. The first is of Jack sat smiling in a red top. The second is of Beth wrapped up warm smiling. Below is the writing (in white) that says “Is the Secondary School System Ableist? By Jack Schofield and Beth Dillon” In the top right hand corner is the LUNA project logo and and the text (in black) “A LUNA project series on Education”. End of description. 

In this piece Jack (18) and Beth (20), share their experiences of being in secondary school. Schools which were, despite the best intentions and actions of some individuals, part of a system that fundamentally didn’t work for students who were Disabled, or who had a chronic illness. Jack felt this in a very acute way- as the system as it had been designed- whereas Beth felt it filtered through a positive school culture and individual members of staff who sought to make life as easy as possible, but nevertheless were working within a system that systematically devalued and disadvantaged students like her.


“High school. For some people it’s the best time of their lives, for others it’s the Hunger Games re-incarnated. It depends on so much. However for Disabled students and pupils the system is stacked against them from the start for a multitude of reasons. Like Science. Specifically, science rooms. Science, my favourite subject. Every time I learned something new I revelled in it. However this was tainted by my experience within the lesson. Typically a lab is set up with a high desk with gas taps, plugs and seats so uncomfortable they make a bed of nails look appealing. My lab was no different. However I was. There was no way I could physically sit on one of the stools for ten seconds never mind an hour, so I was delegated to a little table at the front that I had to share even though It was too small for one person anyways. There was no attempt to get a height adjustable desk at which I have at my current school, no attempt to dissuade the ableism that was in my favourite class. Nothing. However this just perpetuated the image that I was ok with everything so when it came to lab partners...well I didn’t get one, so therefore I was unable to do the tasks. So I usually just sat and watched and made some of the most detailed notes known to man. For me it was obvious the thought of Disabled people came second when designing the lab.”

“Another example of the fact that design came first and Disabled people came second was the French tower. 8 grueling flights of stairs to the guess where my French room was. There was no thought of “what will Jack do?” Or anything of the sort. Just get up to the top and do your French. I ended up missing about 4 months of it in the end because the school refused to move the room as it would “disrupt other students' learning experience”. Needless to say things got changed in the end. “

“Something I will always remember vividly occurred in year 8. I was a happy 13 year old who had to attend a couple appointments each week just whilst some tests were being done. This meant my attendance dropped. And it dropped fast. I think by the end of the first term we were talking in the 80% ish range. This in fairness could be worse. However in the second term the school brought in a brilliant policy....100% attendance in your form. Oh the joys. I knew the second it was announced we wouldn’t be able to get it because of me. I felt terrible. The form (a class of 30) wouldn’t get a treat because I was ill. I couldn’t do anything. My attendance then dropped further and I got a letter about it... the inconsiderate people. But hey ho the term continued and then it came to the last 2 weeks and that our form had 95% attendance. We wouldn’t get the prize. The form quickly deduced it was my fault....and then the bullying came. I won’t go into it because that’s another story for another day but just now the school knew and did nothing. This was due to the attendee policy. I recognise the need for this policy but there are ways around it. Say a proof of hospital attendance or something along those lines. It’s discriminatory.”

Jack describes how “as my health and attendance worsened so did my grades. But I persevered. It’s what everyone has to do.” However, it isn’t what everyone has to do. `Jack’s experiences are shocking, the result of a system in which he and people like him are the last thought. Sadly, this culture seemed to have filtered through the physical architecture, the structure of school, and into the people that make schools what they are. Teachers. In Beth’s case, teachers were far more supportive, but ultimately were fighting within a system not designed for disabled and chronically ill students.


“I had a more positive experience of education than Jack, primarily down to good relationships with supportive teachers who would think about how they could make things as easy as possible. I had a wonderful SENCO support assistant who worked with me through exams and ensured that I could participate and a great group of peers. I have a strong sense of loyalty to my school and I had a fantastic time overall at school.”

“However much of what Jack mentions still rings true with my own experiences. For instance, our school had serious issues regarding the physical accessibility of buildings. For most of year 11 I was unable to go to over half of my lessons due to too many stairs and no lift, instead having to do my work in the student support centre, away from teachers and my peers leading to me going from loving school to feeling very frustrated and disengaged. Many of the doorways were too narrow for wheelchairs and I cannot think of a single automatic assisted doors in the whole school. It says something that in the 7 years I was at the school I was the only one who ever used a wheelchair.”

“However, I do think that a large proportion of the blame cannot lie with the school in all cases. As mentioned previously, the issues regarding accessibility to classrooms is an issue many children face. Whilst the law stipulates that ‘reasonable adjustments must be made’ it goes on to say that ‘Schools are not subject to the reasonable adjustment duty to make alterations to physical features, like adding ramps. They must make the buildings accessible for their disabled pupils as part of their overall planning duties.’ There is quite a lot to unpick with this. It assumes that schools will have planned for accessibility when they were built. Yet this is often not the case. Many school buildings were built in the 1950s or before where there were far looser regulations and guidelines, not to mention far more limited technology. Many of the schools in this category are due for rebuilding whether this be complete or partial before the government cut funding to education. There is little that a school can do about the fundamental issues with governance that mean they do not have access to the resources they need.”

“The same can be said about how the actual fundamental education system is structured around final assessments and deadlines and grades, none of which are particularly helpful for those with unpredictable or challenging health issues and can often result in the deterioration of your health as you struggle to meet these demands . This has been amplified in recent years with the education reforms which moved away from coursework and put far heavier weightings on final exams. Again, this often frustrates teachers themselves and the lack of accessibility here can be attributed to the system and policy makers rather than teachers.”

Beth and Jack’s experiences, while only two peoples, are reflective of the experiences of so many young disabled and chronically ill students. There needs to be major changes to the secondary school system in order to make it inclusive and accessible in a way where access is not a result of getting lucky with a good teacher or classroom allocation.

Originally published 26/9/2020)

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