Dickens on Inclusion
Mark Leach writes about Charles Dickens’s portrayals of Disabled children and education
Everybody seems to be talking about the 200th Anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth.
I started reading Nicholas Nickleby on my new gadget at Christmas. For someone who can only use one hand I have put off reading any big books long ago. My gadget solved that.
Into the second chapter and enter the Muffin Company, a great ruse for making money that wasn’t really there (modern day parallels, Fanny Mae and RBS, abound).
The treatment of Smike in Dotheby is extreme by today’s standards but you only have to listen to the testimony of Edna James to realise that sort of thing was still going on into the 1950s.
Smike has essentially been left at the school and the school master has neglected to educate him because the fees have not been paid.
Smike then befriends Nicholas Nickleby who then adapts his writing so that Smike can appear in his plays. When Nicholas returns to London Smike goes with him.
Squeers and Nickleby’s wicked Uncle Ralph try to reclaim Smike and in the process label him an “imbecile”. The Nickleby family all rally round and protect Smike who finds a skill and something he is good at – gardening. He is loved for who he is and what he does for those around him. He has value in a Dickensian World.
Dickens explains at the start of the novel his reasoning for exposing malpractice in schools. He was criticised for writing about schools in such a negative way, but this novel was to expose bad practice and help to stimulate discussion that resulted in the first regulation of schools by Act of Parliament.
Dickens also depicted people with physical impairments as positive role models. Newman Noggs had a definite limp and stoop and was fond of a pint, but he is a loyal friend and a hero (the strike of the bellows which fells Squeers and results in Squeer’s arrest is a key part of the novel).
I would have to say Dickens was ahead of the curve as far as writing about Education. He had a paternalistic attitude towards disabled people but he valued people for the qualities they individually possess and this novel brought about changes that have resulted in, on balance, a more inclusive education system. I don’t think we should go back towards segregation and exclusion.
Disabled children have value and we should do everything in our power to ensure they are fully included in our society.