05/06/2010 - Equality for All?


IT’S often said that society is judged by how it treats the poor, weak and least fortunate.  If that’s true, then we have a very long way to go before Britain can claim to have ‘opportunity for all and privilege for none’.


Solidarity Trade Union has just received the following letter from a mother worried about the lack of opportunity for her son.  Like many youngsters, he wants to get a job once he leaves school. 


However, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll do this.  The only thing that’s for sure is that he’ll face a very uncertain future.  


The reason for this is explained by his mother:


“My son was 17 in January.  You might think he would be learning to drive, has just finished his AS levels or is out every night with his mates or girl friend.  Sadly, no.  He has Autism and severe learning difficulties and attends a special school.  He is a lovely handsome young man, 6ft 2in and despite every thing is very happy and contented, but the normal choices and way of life enjoyed by his peers is something that he will be denied.


When Paul leaves school at 19, he will effectively be “put out to grass”.  After 15 years of school where he has learned in a safe and structured environment, he will be out into the world of Adult Services, where service provision is woefully inadequate.  Day centres are out because he is “too able”, the only alternative are “drop in” centres where if we are lucky he may get to go 3 days a week.  These centres provide very little in the way of structure and are more like a youth club, and as the name suggests, you can come and go as you please.  People with Autism need structure and routine and I feel that this will not be the right place for Paul.


What about college, I hear you ask.  Well yes there are some courses for people with a learning disability, but they have to be able to travel independently and make their own way around the college.  Bullying is rife and I don’t want my son to be abused going to and around the college, as has happened to so many before him.  Although he is 17 he has the emotional level of a seven year old and simply would not be able to cope.  No one would send a seven year old to college on their own!


There are some places which will provide supported employment, but these are few and far between and much sought after.


Paul keeps asking me what he will do when he leaves school.  He wants to be like everybody else and do a job and to be a valued member of society, but the odds are stacked against him.


Unfortunately he is not on his own.  A girl who left his school last year goes to a day centre full of pensioners where she is parked in front of a TV all day until she goes home.  Her mother tells me that she has lost a lot of the skills that school worked so hard on, and she seems to be depressed.


I believe that there should be some form of third level education for these young people in a setting that they are familiar with and that has specialist teachers who can build on the work done in school.


The government needs to wake up to this problem now!  There are so many premature babies surviving now who will grow up to adulthood and will need to be cared for.  There are more cases of Autism being diagnosed than ever before.  These people are all human beings with a right to a good quality of life.  Their lives should not come to a halt when they reach 19.


My husband and I are getting older and our friends children are starting to flee the nest and settle down.  Paul will probably always be with us until we are unable to care for him. I remember when I was young seeing an elderly lady walking through Belfast holding her adult son by the hand, he had Downs Syndrome.  I thought then that it was very sad.  Little did I know, it was a vision of the future.”


Solidarity cannot understand why the Health and Education authorities in Northern Ireland can’t get their act together.  As this letter demonstrates, there is an absolute need for some form of special needs third level education. 


The relevant authorities should be making plans for the future.  They should be identifying staffing and pupil levels.  They should be training staff.  They should be looking at where to locate buildings and services.  And this all needs to be done now.