We don’t need no education

Pink Floyd sang, “We don’t need no education!” Uh, the thing is we do – we need much better education and we need it yesterday!

I believe my time in formal education was at least three years too long because I was blind.

I have many fond memories of school. I felt secure but it was a world apart, a pocket, a strange little bubble of technology and expertise in educating children with sight loss, an insular bubble of low academic attainment but, to the over 100 students attending the school, the only bubble we knew and one of the only two places in Ireland that could teach kids who couldn’t see too well.

Then, one day in June 1995, the bubble burst, the gates opened and I was let loose on the outside world.

I left Jordanstown school for children who had sight or hearing loss, at the age of 17, with only six GCSEs and not much of a clue of how the real world worked or where I fitted in it.

I remember wondering why family and friends of a similar age were talking about their 10 or 11 GCSEs and the fact that, at 17 when I was finishing, everyone else was half way through their A Levels or already starting work. Long after my school years when it dawned on me just how low the level of academic expectation had been.

My sight was lost aged five, due to complications from congenital Glaucoma. Back then, in the early 1980s, a local, rural mainstream school simply couldn’t cope with a child who was blind or who had poor sight.

My remaining memories of P1 involve me sitting in the corner under a bright lamp, away from the rest of the class, tracing shapes in a book with a really thick crayon. During that year, I developed an eye infection and lost my sight – more or less overnight – in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast.

Specialist schooling

I don’t recall the days, weeks and months after that. My next real memory is of my first day at Jordanstown School, what would’ve been my P2 year.  It was then that my education really began. I was five and a half.

I learnt to read and write using braille and the soundtrack to my school years is of five or six Perkins Braillers, in a class of eight or nine, clattering and thundering their way through the school curriculum hour after hour.

As I look back on it now, I might be critical of my level of education and the lack of academic achievement but it was still my school. Those were my school days and that’s my history.

It was there I learnt to read and write. I made life long friends. It was there I formed my first ill-informed opinions about the world, rebelled against my first perceived injustice and enjoyed my first cigarette and my first kiss. But, more than any of that, it was there I found my love of music and was allowed the time and encouragement to explore it.

I’ve spent a long time thinking about the rights and wrongs of educating children with a disability in a specialist education setting. Whilst I’m not an educationalist, I speak as someone who lived through it and more or less survived.

On the one hand you have a school specialising in teaching kids with a particular disability and surely, to give a child the best chance of succeeding and achieving and being a well adjusted adult, that makes a lot of sense.

On the other hand, allowing a child with sight loss to live and learn in their local mainstream school surrounded by family, friends and neighbours still feels like the right thing to do and where we should be putting our time and resources.

So, why can’t we make it work all the time, and for every child?  Somehow, educating a child with sight loss in a mainstream school still seems like a gamble to me. Yes, it might work in some cases and I’ve seen with my own eyes (pun intended) examples of this –  but it’s by no means a dead-cert. Plus, let’s be honest, kids can be cruel sometimes. Plenty still must be done to educate our young peple not to view difference as something to be feared and therefore attacked.

Boarding

For 12 out of the first 17 years of my life, I boarded at my school from Sunday to Friday and so missed an awful lot of time at home.  I know it was particularly hard for my parents.  Amongst some now-buried emotional weirdness I’ve surely carried with me, I didn’t really make any friends at home as I was seldom there, except at weekends and holidays. I was the kid who would sit in his room and either listen to my talking books or just play guitar.

It has left me with the unshakable belief that bording schools can never be a good thing. That is just my opinion and I’m not judging families that still have to do it. It did affect me and it was only in later life, that I would learn just how much.

My love/hate relationship with specialist education didn’t stop when I left Jordanstown School in 1995. From there I went to the Royal National College for the Blind (RNC College) in Hereford.

It was my final year at school and we had chosen our individual paths to the future. I was set to go on to do A Levels. One spring morning a tutor from the RNC and I spoke over the phone and they simply asked what actually did I want to do. I said, “Play music, record music…. Just music.” It just so happened that they ran a BTEC course in Music Production and that was that, I knew where I was headed – Hereford, in England, to play with mixing desks, microphones and more bubbles.

I spent three years there doing a course that really should’ve taken two. Again, I loved every minute of it and even managed to do some work. Don’t ask me how, or why, but back then local Education and Library Boards paid for your time in one of the six specialist further/higher education colleges, all of which were based in England. Everything was paid for, including travel, food and board.

Barriers

After the RNC I left for Leeds Metropolitan University and then on to Leeds College of Music, where I spent another three years doing something that should’ve only taken two, and I’d formed the opinion that we, visually impaired school leavers, had been treated a bit like mushrooms – kept in the dark and fed s**t.

Like so many others before and after me, I was told about Disability Student services in every college or uni and the money available to purchase equipment to level the playing field. But, in my experience, equipment arrived after months of endless meetings, form filling, and everyone practicing their best sincerity, before not really tackling the problem. The same old attitudes, inflexibility and genuine ignorance that were the real barriers.

One stand out incident is this: in my first year of a degree course at Leeds Met a tutor, exasperated at how he wasn’t able to translate the course material into an accessible format for me, simply gave me a pass in a module so I would pass the year.

I’m not proud of that but it proved a point to me. I never finished that course, preferring instead to transfer to Leeds College of Music which was an altogether better experience.  The college was much smaller, everyone under one roof, and by then I’d grown a bit wiser and knew what to ask for and, more importantly, who to ask.

Lessons learned

To my untrained eye – even now – education of children and young people with sight loss is patchy, inconsistent and, for the most part, still an experiment.

Is it mainstream? Is it specialist? Is it a mainstream specialist mix?  In my opinion no one seems to know for sure but the emerging young adults, their families and of course the teachers can all testify to the real lived experience and not some hypothetical theory or lofty hope by the great and good in educational provision.

Whilst we’re grinding axes, our collective common sense, personal testimony and years of gathered evidence is still thwarted by a civil service with yet another insufficient budget for a big old list of priorities that, to me, has reform of specialist education written in crayon at the bottom.

I think if I had to summarise what I think it would be something like: a system that doesn’t really work, propelled ever forward by people who really do!

Pink Floyd also sang, “All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.”

Our expectations and our future outlook are absolutely shaped by those early years.  If we want our adults of tomorrow to be well adjusted, outward looking, go-getters then surely by now we should have realised the benefits of inclusive education. Every time a child is treated differently or forced to take a separate path or is told, “No you can’t,” because of their disability, another brick is added to that wall and when they grow up, climbing back over that wall can be tricky, sometimes impossible.

You don’t get a second crack at school.  Yes, you can go back to education in later life, I myself know the feeling of snatching an hour here and there to do some assignment after the kids are in bed.  School is so much more than academic achievement.  It’s where a little person learns to be a big person and to stop chasing bubbles.

Why can’t I vote by myself?

I’ve been eligible to vote for 21 years now and have yet to vote independently or in secret!

Every single time I’ve invoked my democratic right to cast a vote in secret, at least one other person, if not more, have known who I voted for, what political party I feel represents me and from that, they’ve probably formed all sorts of other opinions about me as a result, it’s the North of Ireland after all!

 

Why?
Because I’m blind and the electoral system that we have still doesn’t award blind or partially sighted people the same standards of privacy and confidentiality as everyone else.  It’s good old, plain and simple inequality right there.  You’d be hard pushed to find a better example of inequality for people with a disability than when it comes to taking part in the democratic process.

Now I know there are those who will say, “But people are willing to help you cast your vote either on polling day or by postal or proxy?”
“The Returning Officer in a polling station can assist and is glad to do so.”
“Is it really such a big deal if your partner/parent/friend gives you a hand making your mark in the right box?”

I hear what you’re saying.  In writing this piece I definitely do not want to insult or offend those who have helped me over the years to have my say in the political future of our people, but that isn’t my point here.  Why can’t I and others who can’t see fully just vote by ourselves?
It isn’t a complicated thing!  It’s only stating your preference from a list of options.  We do that sort of thing in every day life in some form or another.  It strikes me that if they offered the facility to vote online, then this overlooked, bear faced inequality, would be well on the way to being addressed.  I’m no expert but even I know there’s all sorts of online software and systems that can do exactly what the electoral process would require.  Yes, I know the main counter argument is one of data security and protecting against identity theft.  But are we really supposed to accept that in today’s 2017 world, the systems, software or applications don’t exist that wouldn’t be more than adequate for the job?  If my memory serves me correctly, weren’t we able to complete our 2011 census form online?

I mean, I can leave the house in the morning, make many purchases and information transactions along my way and return in the evening and carry no physical cash or paper work what’s so ever.  We’ve got GPS to find ourselves, contactless payment and apps to keep us appy but the process of casting your democratic vote by anything other than pencil and paper and of course sight, elude us still to this day.

Ask anyone over the age of 18 or 20, what would be the most important civic duty we perform as a citizen and I’m fairly confident the answer would come back, voting for your future public representative to sort this mess out.

Now I should acknowledge that the Electoral Office of Northern Ireland do offer assistance.  You can ask to be guided within a polling station, they will provide additional lighting in polling booths and they do offer a template selector device that has braille numbers that indicate each box on the paper.  This is appreciated by many but it doesn’t go far enough in addressing the route problem of using the printed text on paper as the only method of communication.

Think about it, depending on the type of election, you might have to know your preferred candidate’s number out of a list of maybe 20.  If you’re sighted, you can just glance down the list and then copy the number in to the box.  I have to ask someone to read the list to me then futther with the braille template hoping that the paper is in the right way round and not back to front or upside down.
What about those times when the special assistance isn’t there for what ever reason – you get the picture.

I’ve had people say to me since writing this piece that I’ve got it wrong and the tactile selecter device makes voting equal?  Whilst it does help but it doesn’t address all the actions involved in voting and we, the people with little or no sight, should keep repeating this to whoever will listen.

Does it matter?
Well it matters as much as anything else does.  We’re told that we’re born in to a democratic society.  Our vote is our voice and, if you don’t like something, then vote to change it.  So then yeah, I reckon it matters quite a bit.  I believe that just because somebody might say something like “But sure at least you can vote,” or “can you not just be happy at the fact that people are able to help you vote?”

I’ve got off my backside and went out to cast my vote at every single polling day since I was 18.  I believe in the power of the people and that your vote is yours to do with as you see fit.

A thought does occur to me though; I’ve relied on other people to assist me in voting for years.  I’m assuming they were honest with me and either gave me the right information or made the mark in the right box for me.  Maybe they didn’t.  Maybe I’ve been voting for a completely different MP or MLA all these years.  Maybe I have been voting for something I absolutely disagree with!  Maybe Brexit is my fault.

I’m pretty sure that is not the case but you get my point.
A sighted person walks in to their polling station, takes their ballot paper to the booth and makes their mark on the page before dropping the paper in to the ballot box.  They then leave the polling station confident in the knowledge that they went in there to vote for a particular candidate and that’s what they did.

We can’t.  And I really don’t see where the political will or wind of change is going to come from, any time soon?

Running away from 40

Ok, so this might be an all to obvious subject to talk about to some of my friends but I thought I’d briefly describe how, as a totally blind person I go running without ending myself or others.

I wonder, is guiding a blind runner the thrill seekers answer to sighted guiding?  A sort of Formula 1 or premier league in sighted guiding if you will.

Your reactions have to be faster, your decision making time is shorter and if you get it wrong, the consequences are usually worse with one or other of you on the ground with, at the very least, skinned hands, torn clothes and, at least, a very bruised ego.

The other day I was pondering my refound love of running and why, after my most recent spell of doing absolutely no exercise, I’ve now got back to it.  I think this latest hankering to run is all about trying to recapture my youth ahead of my 40th birthday in November.
Maybe I’m running away from middle age?  Well I’m not getting any younger and that to stave off the onward march of weight gain, achy joints and couch potatoism, I have to do something, I suppose.  When you think about it, it’s free.  You can burn a lot of fat, achieve a lot of heavy breathing and lose a lot of sweat very quickly.  Afterwards, you are usually left in no doubt that, yep, you have indeed been engaged in some sort of physical exercise and that your legs will remind you of this tomorrow when you try going up some stairs.

It’s good for the mind too.  It’s as if my body runs on auto-pilot and my brain is free to sort through some boxes that have been cluttering up the place.
There’s also the battle you wage with yourself as you sweat your way through mile after mile and week after week but gradually, despite all your negative head traffic, it pays off.  One day you suddenly realise that your fitness level has now surpassed your attention span and you’re making progress because you can now successfully bore yourself running.

Blind running

In short, I can run in the gym on a tread mill by myself.  Presuming I can get the thing going without sighted assistance.  A lot of gyms now-a-days are waking up to being accessible to people with a disability.  Good work, it’s only 2017.
This is a game changer for me as I’m used to frantically feeling around for buttons on a completely featureless touch screen for Eleventy minutes before hunting a member of staff to make the thing move.  But as most runners will testify, running on the tread, or dread mill, just doesn’t cut it – it’s always better out in the open air.
For this, I need the expert piloting skills of my guide runner Dervla.

It’s Dervla’s job to run beside me, either side will do and basically steer, keep track of our mileage with her fancy phone app and talk to me – or sometimes herself, if I’m too out of breath to speak.

It’s my job to respond to her directions, make this as difficult as possible and ask plenty of annoying questions about where we are and how far is that now?

Unlike in normal walking guiding, I don’t hold Dervla’s elbow.  We use a guide rope which can be made of anything really as long as it isn’t elastic or stretchy.  The idea being that Dervla holds one end, I hold the other and that both our arms are free to move independently for, as Kate Bush put it, “running up that hill.”
As a basic rule of thumb, I’d suggest the guide runner stays about  half a stride in front.  Let’s face it, there would be little point of me being in front now would there?

By keeping a minimum tension through the rope, I can feel and respond to any direction changes from Dervla.  Of course, nothing beats just giving verbal instructions as we go.  Yep you guessed it, “left a bit” “right a bit” “right a bit more” “I said go right!” and my personal favourite “STOP!”

My top five things that drive me mad when running

Dogs off the lead (we know chasing things is absolutely why you were put here, it’s great, we know but go away)

Kids on bikes that steer randomly in to your path (careful there’s a 6ft 2 blind man attached to a smaller person hurtling towards you and we aren’t great at stopping)

Walkers who won’t move aside even though we tried to say, “excuse me!” (we’re faster than you and we’ll be out of your airspace in a second)

Cyclists (you kings and queens of the road/path/any surface known to man really, use your bell, it won’t hurt)

Cars parked on pavements (Really, all four wheels? Don’t do it people, you’ll realise one day).

I’ve been asked how or where do you train to be a guide runner and there are organisations who offer this training but, in truth, I’ve never ran with anyone who received any actual formal training at all.  You can ask Dervla but when we first went out running, I just said grab the rope, keep going and just let me know what’s coming up.  It really is all about getting to know one another as runners.  It obviously will work better if you’re compatible in terms of speed and running gate.
It’s a partnership and if you run enough together, you’ll both react as a team and hopefully no one need limp home whilst thinking up a much more heroic sounding tale than “I tripped over my own self whilst out running, now have a bleeding face and look like I was street fighting with an angry stapler.”

I am the music man, I come from down your way and I can play

as I crawled out from under the grand piano, banging my head in the process, I stood up and brushed years of  floor fluff from myself… I was in a reflective mood.

It was   Saturday night and I’d just finished setting up my gear before playing a gig in a local bar.

I love it!  I’ve been doing this gigging thing for over 20 years now and haven’t yet worked out how to stop.

Is it lucrative? No, not really.
Does it further a   career in music? Nope, but if you’re good hopefully they’ll call you more than you   call them.
Does it make me feel good? Yes, yes it does and that’s what I wanted to write about here.

Let’s deal with some of the facts.  I’m totally blind and gig regularly in any venue that books me really.  I get from A to B thanks to a few loyal taxi drivers who know me well and know the craic.  I set up my own equipment and when I say “no, I don’t need a hand, I’m fine” I mean this in the nicest possible way.  I’ve my own ways of doing things and usually helpful people helping doesn’t help.

I’ve just realised I haven’t said what I actually do.  I sing songs and play guitar.  acoustic covers of chart stuff usually with a good proportion of my set being Irish Folk songs or songs that aren’t Irish or folk, that sound a bit Irish and Folkky.  More recently I’ve started to write my own material and am finding this very satisfying but I don’t give enough time to it and this does trouble me.  There’s just not enough hours to go around.
You can take a listen to some stuff I’ve recorded over on Sound Cloud if you like.

 

I’m under no illusion, playing endless gigs in local bars doesn’t lead to bags of cash or a glamorous celebrity life style but I think I’m addicted to the   buzz, the endless problem solving and meeting every kind of people.   People are great!  You do meet the odd ejit who is determined to tell me three more things, two more times, before   Dropping One more Guinness fart but, by a long way, people are cool and simply appreciate live music and that I seem to be sweating more than they are right now.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a glass at least half full kind of guy but I remember when the realisation hit me that no matter how many gigs you do in a year, you’ll be no further on than when you started really.  Yes, you’ll have hopefully learnt more about yourself as a singer or musician but to the audience, it’s always the first time they’ve heard you and even though you might have played there 37 times before, nobody really remembers and always forget in the morning.

To me, playing music has always felt like mine.  It’s something I started to do in my teenage years, realised I wasn’t bad at it and kept on exploring in my own way.

Somehow, even though I can’t see a thing, getting out in front of people, some absolutely bananas drunk, has never daunted me and something I’ve come to measure myself by.  The day I feel I can’t do this, feels like a bad day.  Maybe that’s it, now I’ve created this persona and if I let it go, it’ll mean the end of something.

I’ve made amazing friends and connections through music.  I’ve had some fantastic experiences too, the best of which I probably couldn’t write here for fear of legal proceedings but on a serious note though, I think it’s the fact that I was in control of it that makes it such a rewarding way to earn a few quid.  Before I started my current day job, I suppose gigging was my main source of income for a while.  And it worked.  If you put the time in, then you get the money out but it’s a hard way of life especially if you’re balancing family life or a relationship with a better half.  Plus, watch the drinking, as I don’t drive, obviously, I’m free to drink as much as I want.  I try and stick to the three pint rule though, it’s ok to have just three pints, that doesn’t affect my singing or playing and I should be ok for the toilet breaks.

Speaking of toilets, not being able to see and having to find my own way to the gentlemen’s facilities in a new venue is a bit of a pain in the arse.  When a venue has booked you to play a gig, it seems somehow wrong to then have to ask the bar staff for assistance to go for a wee or Is that just me?

Singing and playing guitar for me, is cathartic.  That’s really the only reason I do it.  Believe it or not, there is a zone and when you’re in it; it’s the best feeling in the world.  You know when life serves you up the sort of week that leaves you   wondering why stuff isn’t simpler, the only thing I know sorts it all out is a good sing.  The louder the better and just give them one more tune.
Maybe a part of me gets a kick out of the fact that, within the circus of taking bookings for gigs, travelling to gigs, setting up equipment and finally performing, I feel as an equal to any other working musician.  There’s no special allowances offered or accepted, my customers just want a musician and they aren’t going to be able to offer special assistance, extra time or let me off when something isn’t right.  I’ve never felt discriminated against because of my sight, I’ve never felt excluded or hard done by or lesser than and that’s quite something in today’s society.  I feel more equal gigging than I do in my seemingly safe and tidy office job and I don’t admit that lightly.

I still count myself lucky that I get to provide a sound track to someone’s night out or share something of that amazing buzz he or she appears to be having.  Music is a powerful thing.  It does stir up emotions, alters moods and helps people get what’s inside, outside.  It’s probably over indulgent of me to say but I think modes of expression like music is the closest thing to magic in this world.

Did I find what I was looking for under that piano?  No, I didn’t but then you seldom do.
The plug socket I was searching for was     Right beside me the whole time.  Music is a filthy business.

Thanks for reading and remember, don’t trust it!