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Special needs

30 November, 1999

‘Are yez handicapped or are yez deprived?’ shouted the man who was in charge of letting the children into Funderland. Paul Andrews SJ tells of his experience of working with children of St Declan’s Special National School in Dublin.

Last month I joined in the celebrations for the golden jubilee of St. Declan’s Special National School in Dublin. As I look back over my working life, I see that I gave more years to St Declan’s – eighteen in all – than to any other ministry. In many ways they were my best, my happiest years. It was an unpaid job, as resident manager, psychologist (I paid for my keep from the earnings of my practice), caretaker and part-time teacher. I opened the school in the mornings, locked it up at night and dealt with any emergencies, such as blocked toilets or overnight burglaries.

St. Declan’s was founded fifty years ago to meet the needs of a particular group of young children. They were of normal intelligence but were underperforming grossly; in fact they were not coping with mainstream primary schools. Often they were written off as stupid or lazy, when in fact they were suffering from conditions which would be recognized more clearly today, such as dyslexia, hyperactivity (ADHD), family upset, epilepsy, Asberger’s Syndrome and other specific learning disabilities.

A house on Dublin’s Northumberland Road came on the market, large enough to accommodate a small school. It was called St. Declan’s after the patron saint of Ardmore and the Decies – and also because Declan is an easy name to spell, even for dyslexics. The Department of Education recognized it as a special national school for emotionally disturbed children, and so it remains to this day.

That was a curious rubric: emotionally disturbed. When my Jesuit brethren would enquire solicitously how I was surviving in what they imagined as a harrowing task, I could reassure them: It’s not really so hard, because I’m often emotionally disturbed myself, as are the members of my community. The difference is that the children in St. Declan’s will get over their disturbance.

In 1958 the words of Jesus rang true of Irish schooling: ‘To those who have, more will be given, and from those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.’ Girls who were clever, well-motivated and ambitious tended to come from prosperous and harmonious homes. Their parents, wise educational strategists, would select a good school for them and support their learning; and in school they were more likely to be in a relatively small class with good teachers. Children with less brains, motivation and money were more likely to be in lower-stream classes with less inspiring teachers and less motivated companions, though in fact they had more need of small classes and good teachers than the clever ones.

In St. Declan’s our mission was to reverse that position. The lovely children who came to us had drawn the short straw in many ways: in brains, or money, or family upset, or ambition, or physical or emotional health. Most of them could look back on a history of failure. In the initial assessment I tried to lay out in detail the nature of the problem that was holding them back, and the target and strategy the teachers might use to get that girl or boy over their hump, so that they could rejoin a mainstream class in two years or less.

It was not a matter of turning geese into swans, but of giving children an experience of successful learning at a level they could cope with, and empowering them with a sense of their own gifts. Obviously the families were part of what we worked with. In one class of First Communicants, only two were from intact families.

The school’s role was – and is – to ensure the best care and teaching for those who in other ways were deprived. We were allowed a class-size of about a dozen. This has varied over the years, and is now as low as eight, with special-needs assistants available where children need one-to-one help. When they were given that help, the results were often rapid and spectacular. They would go back to their original school, often reluctant to give up the affectionate attention and skilled teaching of St. Declan’s, but with a new self-confidence.

They were normal children who had hit an abnormal hurdle. We worked hard to maintain that sense of normality while offering them the special help they needed. It was not always easy. One wet January day I walked with the school – some fifty girls and boys – to the RDS where Funderland had opened the funfair to all the special schools of Dublin. The forecourt was full of buses disgorging children whose handicaps were visible – blind, wheelchaired, Down syndrome and others. As we approached the entrance a big Dubliner shouted at me: ‘Who are youse? ‘Saint Declan’s school’, I said. He looked hard at the children gathered round me and yelled: ‘Are yez handicapped or are yez deprived?’ (His job was to let the handicapped in first.)

It was an awful moment, as the children looked at me for a verdict on their state. Were they handicapped or deprived? We had worked hard to spare the pupils from the destructive effect of labelling. But no matter how I answered, I knew that some of them would internalize that sense of stigma.

‘We’ means the teachers and school secretary, an extraordinary bunch. It was only in St. Declan’s that I came to realize the quality of our national teachers. On the basis of their Leaving Certificates, they were among the brightest of their generation; but they had opted for primary teaching rather than medicine or nuclear physics or business. They were not merely bright and well-trained, but also dedicated, unsurprisable, with a sense of vocation and joy in their work. The children knew they were loved. You sensed that as soon as you walked into the school.

So on this golden jubilee I look back on those golden years, and feel happy that Saint Declan’s is still flourishing. Jesus could look in there and say: ‘In this place, to those who have not, more is being given. Blessed are the poor.’

This article first appeared in The Messenger (October 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.