From cover to cover
Maresa McKeith appeared on the cover of the very first edition of Inclusion Now in Spring 2001 and is now a writer. We asked her to tell us about her journey.
The weeks in the Spring of 2001 were my last few weeks at school. I had only been at the school for two years but in that time my self-esteem rose dramatically. I had moved into a school in 1999 where, for the first time, school teachers had believed in me. The teachers were excited by what I could do, I had effective assistance and was able to make friends, one of whom I am still close to. So Spring 2001 was the time I was preparing for my GCSEs which was wonderful after the struggles I had to access the learning I had craved.
It is eight years now since I left formal education and seventeen years since I left school. In that time my life has moved on because of my relationships. Relationships with family, friends and assistants. The denial, in the education system, of the importance of relationships is a denial of what is important in life.
When I was at Further Education College, doing ‘A’ levels, two of my friends and I set up a team which we called ‘One For All’. We set ourselves up to help schools understand how important including ALL young people in mainstream education is and how possible it can be.
The three of us are very different from each other but worked well together. I was seen as having ‘high support needs’, Lucy has an impairment and needs help with carrying things etc and Lindsey is seen as not disabled.
When we started ‘One For All’ in 2003 we were asked into schools and did workshops for professionals in education. They seemed to want to hear what we had to say. We felt welcomed in for about five years. More recently I, with some others and the support of ALLFIE, went into a secondary school to deliver some training around the concept of ‘The Inclusion Assistant’. The school staff were enjoying us being there and would have liked us to continue, but we were not asked back again. Something had changed.
Since then I have offered to go into schools to talk about how important it is for all young people to be together in school. Initially there is usually interest but then, even with follow up, there is no response.
After I went to university. In one way I was a success as I had done well in GCSE and A level work and I loved the academic challenge but socially it was very hard.
Everything was speedy and we had to invite ourselves into groups in the canteen and/or social areas so it was hard to make friends. The pace and my communication system did not match up. I did make some friends but they haven’t lasted.
Getting into the writing world
When I left university I knew I wanted to get into the writing world. I had been to two creative writing classes before university but now wanted more. I was lucky enough to be asked to write a chapter for a book from my ‘One For All’ days and I experimented with a few writing groups before I found a poetry group I jelled with. I was accepted as myself and I wrote and we found ways of performing my poetry. At that time one of this group became my assistant, Jim. It has been my partnership with him that has been crucial to my getting into the writing world over the last seven years.
There are always people who want us to be included in life. I have been fortunate to continue to be invited to teach in the education department at the university. We meet students who are studying education and many of them are enthusiastic about including all young people but it is not easy being employed in schools at the moment.
How we are included in the world depends on our relationships. The education students who have had disabled young people in their lives are often the ones who are enthusiastic about including all young people in school.
My friend Brandon is also known to ALLFIE and has been in Inclusion Now. He is twelve years younger than me and encounters the same difficulties as I do. He says, “It isn’t possible to do anything spontaneously because so much needs to be checked out.” He also spends a lot of energy finding assistants, “It’s a lengthy process”, also training “takes ages and it is exhausting.” Brandon was at a mainstream school with mixed experience of making some friends but also of being bullied. Even now he finds a lot of people can be patronising and thoughtless.
At present it is not ordinary to need a high level of support and be part of the mainstream world. It is still seen as extraordinary and unusual. We need our assistants, friends and allies, to enable the extraordinary to become ordinary.
The world is still so unaware. We must grow up together to stop the vicious circle of segregation.
It is about how society sees questioning, about whether wondering is seen as productive or not. For the Earth to preserve itself we need to live differently, we need to be curious about how this can be done. We need to wonder about each other. If we can’t wonder how can we think, how can we find new ways of living, how can we get to know each other? I love to wonder, I love to think about how we can use each other’s talents and how to share without anxiety.
Friends are essential, our survival depends on them.