Disabled children are as ambitious as their able-bodied peers. But discrimination soon leads to disillusion
CLAIRE McKERNAN is 16. She suffers from spina bifida, and uses a wheelchair. Her ambition is to be a nursery nurse, and in order to join the college course that will give her the necessary qualification, she has to pass one GCSE. Hardly an enormous requirement, except that the "special school" she attends doesn't offer even one GCSE on its curriculum.

Claire, bright and articulate, is undeterred. "I knew this was not going to be easy, because of this thing I'm sitting in, but I'm determined to work with children," she says. At 14, she was allowed to take time out of her usual school to start on a preliminary two-year course in child care. She has been on the course a year and it is proving a great success. "I've come off having one-to-one help because I'm coping well," she says. She adds wryly: "I have been known to be ahead of the rest of the class."

Claire proves a point made in one of two new surveys looking at the lives of disabled people. The fundraising charity Scope's research found that disabled children have very positive self-images and very similar aspirations to able-bodied children; they don't see limits on their lives; they want to be rich and famous, film stars or footballers.

The second survey, by the Leonard Cheshire charity, included the views of older disabled people, and it paints a very different picture. It shows that disabled people remain the victims of prejudice and discrimination - so much so that the charity believes the disabled should fall within the remit of the government's Social Exclusion Unit.

What happens in between the age of optimism and the onset of disillusion? When Scope interviewed children aged between seven and 11, the most popular jobs for the boys were footballer, computer programmer, policeman, teacher and pilot; the girls wanted to be vets, pop stars, teachers, hairdressers and nurses. Of course all children want to be pop stars and footballers, and as they grow older they learn to tailor their ambitions. But for disabled children, the tailoring is more severe, and starts earlier on.

For example, to get that single GCSE she needs, Claire McKernan will either have to study at night school or spend an extra year in another school to obtain it. "My school said that because not all of the children were capable of GCSEs they had been dropped," she says. "It's true that my school has got some pupils with severe learning difficulties, but those who are capable aren't being given the chance to fulfil their potential." She is angry, but she won't give in: "That would be too easy."

Ashley White, aged 14, who has cerebral palsy, is also ambitious. Ashley moved from his special school into mainstream education three years ago. The process was "a fight for my family and a dream for me", he says. "Being in a special school hides you from the rest of the world; when I wanted to read a book, instead of teaching me sounds and letters they would read it to me. The educational side of it for me was tragic. Swapping changed my life." Now he is learning French. "I like languages and I like to communicate. At special school I couldn't even read; now I feel independent, I can do everything for myself."

Ashley would like to make a career as a spokesman for disabled rights. "I've been told by many people that I'm good with words and making things clear to people, and I think I would enjoy it," he says. "I'm the kind of person who can't make up their mind, though: I've wanted to be a fireman one week, a doctor the next. But you have to bear your disability in mind; bear in mind that you're not perfect." He hopes that in 10 or 20 years' time maybe some of the problems that dispirit disabled people in the workplace might be solved - from simple issues of access to more complex ones of overt or covert discrimination.

BRIAN LAMB, head of public affairs for Scope and a member of the Disability Rights Task Force, set up by the government to investigate the shortcomings of the current Disability Discrimination Act, believes that it is important that children's voices are heard. "We had done a lot of research into adult perceptions and the discrimination that adults face, but we now need to know what we can do for children."

Young adulthood is always a particularly difficult time, says Mr Lamb, but young disabled people have extra problems. "After disabled people leave the protective environment of their school all their experiences are of discrimination. They see their able- bodied friends getting jobs, being promoted, having accessible housing. They have joined a different world. It seems a huge barrier."

Discrimination comes at a very fundamental level. The point is not that every circus should be forced to include a quota of disabled trapeze artists, for example. The more relevant issue concerns a well-qualified professional whose new job is in a building where his or her wheelchair has to be manhandled down a flight of stairs by a grudging porter in order to get to the lavatory.

"We don't want a social-worker attitude," says Brian Lamb. "We are not looking for special favours. But society has the responsibility to create a level playing field." What the disabled don't want is reverse discrimination - one of those programmes where a disabled person who gets fairly close to the required qualifications is preferred over 10 able-bodied applicants. "We just want to remove the barriers. We need to show how disabled people can be supported. So, you are an accountant and the only suitable loo is on the floor occupied by the public relations department, perhaps the solution is to move that one desk."

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was passed in 1995 and implemented in 1996, but Rachel Hurst, spokeswoman for Rights Now, a campaign that seeks full civil recognition for disabled people, claims that the DDA does not go far enough and is difficult to enforce legally. Rights Now has been fighting for fully comprehensive and enforceable legislation. "The last government fought, lied and cheated to make sure we didn't get it; it brought in its own law, the current DDA, to keep us quiet," says Rachel Hurst.

While the present government's ministerial task force investigates, the disabled still feel like outsiders. "We can't get into public buildings or use public transport, disabled children have no access to mainstream education, our chances of getting a job are three times less, and every time we go down the street we encounter attitudes that are unacceptable," says Ms Hurst. The structure of society is such, she says, that the disabled are more excluded than any other group.

"Nobody is expecting jobs they can't do, that they don't have the qualifications or talent for," she says. "We are only talking about employment for people who can do the job." She also notes, somewhat pointedly, that it is a good thing that Cambridge University didn't decide that Stephen Hawking couldn't think just because he was in a wheelchair.

Scope's Brian Lamb calls for a commission that can enforce the law. "We need a powerful body to make a powerful statement. We are hoping to see a White Paper on this shortly. The second step is a radical revision of the legislation as it stands. Thirdly, education."

Education policy varies, and some families are moving hundreds of miles to authorities which allow their disabled children to go to mainstream schools. Mr Lamb would also like to see a government advertising campaign to address general public ignorance: "The attitude thing is crucial - the notion that the disabled don't want this, aren't capable of that."

There is not much they can't do. Simon Watson is 21 and has scoliosis of the back and club hands, but that does not stop him working as a help- desk support analyst for Ericsson Telecommunications. "When I first started doing my A-levels I realised I was good at computers," he says. "I did an interview for a job during my exams and I got the job before my results were even through." Simon passed his Microsoft Certified Professional exam at 19 - extremely early for a qualification which, he says, has made the world his oyster.

He has been headhunted several times and his salary has shot up. "People think, 'This guy's got front to ask for a job - he must have something to offer'. I've only ever had two interviews where I haven't got the job, and it was clear as soon as I walked in that I would be rejected because of my disability. It's a disappointment, but I suppose it's just human nature."

It was probably the employers' loss.