The retirement of Johnny Mee as chairman of the board of St Anthony’s School in Castlebar after 22 years marks the end of an era. But it also marks the end of over 50 years of dedication on his part to the cause of education for children with special needs.
Johnny Mee was one of that founding trio that, on a dark January night in 1966, initiated what was to become Western Care. Together with Tom Fallon and the late solicitor, Michael Joe Egan, they had called a meeting in Castlebar to put forward their proposals to provide education and support for children with special needs. Nearly 200 people responded to the call, and from there was launched an organisation which became a blueprint for special education all across the country.
In today’s enlightened times, it is difficult to imagine what life was like for children with special needs, and their parents, 50 years ago. There were no special services, no State support, no acknowledgement of the emotional burden placed on families where each day was as bleak as the day before, and where all too often the ‘different’ child was kept isolated and hidden from neighbours and community. There were no structures to help families cope, and all too often the very existence of a child with special needs was cloaked in darkness.
One of the earliest ambitions of the new organisation was the provision of appropriate education for children with special needs, and even that aim did not always meet with universal approval. Locally, a senior churchman was known to have advised the group that special schools would be folly since ‘those children are uneducable’. It was a comment not meant unkindly, but it was a measure of the obstacles that the original group would face.
Undaunted, the work went on. In every parish and village in Mayo, branches of Western Care were established; the goodwill was palpable. Over time, St Anthony’s and St Brid’s, St Dympna’s and St Nicholas’s were opened, and a brighter future was offered to the children and their parents.
Thanks to dedicated, committed teachers and to a more-generous response from central government, the special schools thrived and so did the quality of life for the pupils from when, a generation earlier, their prospects would have been written off as hopeless.
That the provision of Mayo special-schools education has been a resounding success is beyond question. Parents speak of the life changing experiences of their children, their new sense of achievement, their enhanced confidence and self worth, their ability to live independent lives – all of the blessings that would have been denied them under a mainstream school system.
And yet, despite all the proven benefits of what has been accomplished, dark clouds are beginning to gather over the future of special schools. The National Council for Special Education has called for a debate on the abolition of special schools and special classes and the placing of all children in mainstream schools, regardless of their level of disability.
The rationale – that Ireland may be in breach of a UN convention by ‘segregating’ up to 16,000 students with special needs from their mainstream peers. ‘Full inclusivity’, the claim goes, ‘is a fundamental human right’.
However well meaning the intent, most parents would agree that such a policy cannot work in practice. In the Canadian province of New Brunswick, where such an experiment has been underway for some years, parents speak of isolation rooms, reduced days and resorting to home education, where their children are clearly unable to integrate into mainstream. Blaine Higgs, the Premier of New Brunswick, has described the system as ‘a disaster’.
But yet, in this age of political correctness, who knows what might happen next? And special schools may find that all of the hard-won progress over the years may about to be wiped out.