The Journey to Activism
“What happened at school made me angry but through my campaigning work … I’ve learnt to use my anger for turning bad into good.” Mike Lambert interviews disability campaigner, Shaun Webster MBE, about his time at school and his views on inclusive education.
These days Shaun Webster is an internationally recognised campaigner for the rights of people with learning disabilities. His work for Leeds-based human rights organisation, Change, has focused on employment, independent living and self-advocacy. He’s also worked with Lumos (a European children’s’ charity founded by JK Rowling) to campaign for the closure of long-stay institutions and aid the reintegration of young people with learning disabilities into their communities. In 2015, Shaun received an MBE for his services to people with learning disabilities and their families.
But, as Shaun starts describing his early schooling, I soon realise that his successes haven’t come without a struggle. “I was sent to special school when I was seven”, he explains. “Before that I attended my regular, local primary school. They told my mum, I wasn’t keeping up and I was struggling. And I stayed in that same special school till I was 16.”
“How did you feel about that?” I ask.
“I didn’t understand why I had to move. I was scared and really upset, because I was losing all my friends. But, at the time, I just had to go with it. Later, maybe in my early teens, I began wondering why I had to go somewhere different from everyone else.”
“What started you wondering about that?”
“The special school was on the other side of Rotherham. I had to go by a special coach that picked me up. I remember, we had to drive past this other, big school and all the kids would take the micky out of us on the coach. They’d call us horrible names, like “retard”, “basket” and “thicko”. I was angry and I decided to teach myself the regular bus route to school. But the first time I went to school on my own, I got in trouble for doing it.”
We both laugh.
“What subjects did you do at school?” I ask.
We did history, maths, English, cooking and woodwork. I was good at history and maths. They never taught us any science, and I would have liked a turn at that. I didn’t get on with English. I couldn’t read or write properly and I felt very isolated in English. Two weeks before I left school, when I was 16, they said they’d found out I was dyslexic.”
“So you never received any specialist dyslexia support?”
“No. Then, I went to college for two years, and I didn’t get any dyslexia help there either.”
“Looking back, do you think there were other important things you didn’t receive at school?”
“There were no lessons about life skills, living independently or anything like that. The only thing we did was cooking. I know people need to cook, but I would like to have been taught how to look after myself.”
“What are you thinking of?”
“I’m thinking of things like opening a bank account, paying rent, budgeting my money, transport issues and having a job. None of that happened. And there was no careers advice, like in other schools. They had sex education, but it was a joke. They didn’t expect people like us to have sex or relationships. They never thought we could have different sexuality, like gay, lesbian or straight. So, there was no proper explanation about that or about condoms.”
“It sounds like there was a whole bunch of things they never expected you to do – like travel independently, live independently, have a job, have a relationship, become a parent and a grandparent – all of which you’ve done.”
“Following school, you went to college for two years. How was that?”
“I liked the woodwork but, really, it was about as big a waste of time as school. At the time, my dream was to mix with other people without learning disabilities. I thought, maybe if I had the right support, I could join in some mainstream classes. But I never got the chance and, because students with learning disabilities worked in a separate unit, I felt very isolated.”
“Did you finish education with any qualifications?”
“No. No qualifications and I couldn’t read or write. For a long time, I was very angry and bitter about that.”
“Have you been able to make any progress with reading and writing since leaving college?”
“Yes. In my work now, I write emails and use Twitter.”
“How did that happen?”
“It didn’t happen until my early thirties, when I started working at Change. Before that, I’d given up all hope and thought I’d never read or write. To begin with, I was quite shy and scared of the office work. But they gave me one-to-one help when I needed it, always on my own terms, and I never felt judged by anyone. I started doing little tasks, step by step, and over time I became more confident and they encouraged me to push myself. When I first tried writing emails, I felt very scared and thought, there’s no way I’m doing this. But Change made me think I could do it. At first, someone would check every email before I sent it but, these days, I mostly don’t bother. I also now have some speech software from Access to Work that helps with my dyslexia.”
“So it was Change who provided the support you should have received at school?”
“Yes. What happened at school made me angry but, through my campaigning work at Change, I’ve learnt to use my anger for turning bad into good.”
“Where did you acquire the life skills that have enabled you to live by yourself?”
“Mostly through an organisation called KeyRing. They met with me, identified my weaknesses and helped me, step by step, with things I couldn’t do. The way KeyRing works, they give a lot of support at first but, in the long-run, they want you to live independently, as part of the community.”
“Finally, what advice would you give to parents wondering how to educate a child with a learning disability?”
“Parents need to find out which local schools provide one-to-one support and promote inclusive education. Don’t think about special schools. Look at other options, where the child will receive a proper education and won’t be isolated. And above all, never give up.”
Mike Lambert, ALLFIE trustee