Caution lethal cane users on the loose!

 

Mobility aid or lethal weapon?

Mobility aid or lethal weapon?

When I first read a story in yesterday’s newspapers about a visually impaired girl being banned from using her white cane in school I thought that it must be some kind of spoof article. Blind and visually impaired people have been using white canes as an aid to their mobility since 1921, when a photographer named James Biggs from Bristol lost his sight following an accident. Biggs became alarmedwhen dealing with traffic around the city, and therefore painted his walking stick white to be more easily visible. Gradually this approach was adopted by more individuals and organisations, and has now become a common feature that is easily recognised as an indication that the user has limited vision. Users of the white cane, (sometimes referred to as a long cane), receive training from mobility officers and find that this simple device enables them to maintain a degree of independence.

Over many years I have encountered numerous users of white canes and cannot say that I have ever been fearful for my safety or anxious that I was about to be injured by the individuals involved. I was therefore taken aback to hear that seven year old Lily-Grace Hooper has been banned from using her essential mobility aid, by the head teacher of a primary school which she attends, located ironically in the city of Bristol!

Having read a little around this topic, I have found that indeed there have been occasional accidents involving individuals tripping over the white cane used by a visually impaired person. However, it would appear that in relation to the number of individuals using this particular aid to mobility, accidents are few and far between. Indeed, it seems that in schools where children have been using these devices, students soon become aware of the user and get used to the idea that more space may be required by their classmate. Reports of accidents in schools caused by users of the white cane may be out there somewhere, but they have as yet evaded me.

I once had the experience of being run into by a teacher who was a wheelchair user in a school in London. No serious damage was done to either myself or the wheelchair. As is usually the case in polite English society I apologised profusely for having impeded the wheelchair user’s pathway, whilst she similarly begged forgiveness for having crashed into the back of my legs. I am quite sure that such collisions between able bodied teachers, colleagues and students happen every day. I certainly was not inclined to call for a ban upon wheelchairs in schools, recognising that minor events such as that which I had experienced are bound to happen from time to time.

It is to be hoped that Lily-Grace Hooper’s situation can be quickly resolved. I understand that the anticipated accidents that might have been caused by this pupil have not yet occurred, and that as yet there is not a queue of ambulances lined up at the school gates. Common sense would suggest that having a child who is a white cane user in school provides opportunities for the whole school community to learn about the needs of Lily-Grace, and that she will be able to experience what it means to be welcomed and included in school. However, I sometimes find that common sense is not quite as common a commodity as we might expect.

I would like to ask the head teacher of this Bristol primary school why not try to do something original to assist children with this unique learning opportunity? Perhaps they could take it in turns to be blindfolded and with the aid of a cane – white or otherwise, find their way about the classroom in order to make suggestions of how the environment could be made more Lily-Grace friendly. Or maybe this suggestion is simply symptomatic of a “touchy-feely” teacher who believes that we should look for learning opportunities rather than seeing problems – (yes I confess I am such a one!).

I am sure that the head teacher and governors of the school attended by Lily-Grace Hooper will have learned much from the publicity and debate that has surrounded their bizarre decision. I hope that the confidence of Lily-Grace and her family has not been too impaired by this outmoded attitude to a child with a disability. Let’s hope that the school’s managers are now in a position to reflect upon what it takes to be inclusive and to enable all pupils to feel at home in school.

 

Spare the child and ditch the rod!

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Sections 16 and 17 of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act bans corporal punishment, stating that:-
no child should be subjected to mental or physical harassment or
expulsion”.

 

I remember on one of my earliest visits to an Indian school in 2000 being alarmed by the number of teachers who arrived at their classrooms carrying canes. I must emphasise that during visits to schools in India I have never seen a teacher using such an implement against a child, though the threatening action of slapping a stick hard down on a disk top is something I particularly recall from a visit to one school.  I should also add, that in recent years my visits to schools in several parts of India would suggest that (with one notable exception), the practice of carrying a cane is much rarer than it may have been in the past.

It has always seemed to me that teachers who need to resort to violence in order to manage their classes are demonstrating their own inadequacy rather than that of their students. In discussion with teachers in India, as elsewhere, the majority appear as appalled by the thought that corporal punishment should have a place in education as I am. One does not have to be the most astute observer of the world to see that where violence is used as a means of solving problems this quickly escalates, and often exacerbates a situation until it is out of control.

My parent’s generation and certainly that of my grandparents attended school at a time when the physical chastisement of children was still an accepted practice in English schools, and although it was not made illegal until an Act of Parliament in 1987, it was rarely used during my school days. I do recall children being caned at my secondary school, and indeed I was subjected to a milder form of corporal punishment administered with the rubber sole of a plimsoll. Such an act today would quite rightly lead to serious questions being asked about the conduct of a teacher, even if the transgression of the individual pupil was deemed serious.

Significant moves towards halting corporal punishment in Indian schools have been taken in recent years. A report by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2007 suggested that substantial numbers of children in Indian schools were still being subjected to violence from adults, and that this was having a detrimental impact upon both their physical and mental well-being. The 2005 National Plan of Action for Children and the Report on Child Protection for 2007-2012, called for the implementation of  The National Policy on Education (1986, modified 1992) which stated that “corporal punishment will be firmly excluded from the educational system.” As with all policies, the intentions may be good, but unless the spirit of the Act is applied through action, situations will not improve.

This issue came to the forefront of my mind yesterday on reading a report in several Indian newspapers, of children with visual impairments in a school in South India being severely beaten by teachers. We are not talking here of one or two strokes of a cane, which in itself would, in my opinion, be a heinous crime, but a sustained and vicious attack upon children unable to see what was happening or to defend themselves. Unknown to the teachers, their actions were caught on video and posted on various websites in order to emphasise the deliberate flouting of the law and the unacceptable behaviour of these individuals. The violence of adults who are entrusted with the care of vulnerable children should disturb the sensibilities of any compassionate individual, and should certainly challenge the complacency of those who have the ultimate responsibility to manage education and care.

A link to the video recording is provided here, though I must advise that it is extremely disturbing and would urge you to ensure that it is not shown to children.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFFSyPZag3Q&feature=player_detailpage

A report of this horrendous incident under the heading RTE Act Fails to Check Teachers’ Canes in the Times of India of 22nd July, emphasises the lack of authority with which legislation, including the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE) is being implemented or monitored. The news report suggests that:-

“In most cases, corporal punishment goes unreported as children fear telling on their teachers. And in the rare instances when such incidents come to light, they do not reach a legal conclusion as parents work out a compromise with the school management,”

Such incidents will continue for so long as teachers and parents are complicit and do not stand up against violence in schools. It will certainly take courage on the part of many individuals if such behaviours are to cease, because many fear retribution against either themselves or their children, if they speak out or act.

India is a country with a proud history of overcoming oppressions largely through non-violent means. If the use of satyagraha could defeat an occupying administration it must surely be a lesser task to ensure that children can attend school without the fear of being subjected to violence.