Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Julie Fernandez, actress

'A fantastic experience at a wonderful school'


Julie Fernandez, 34, began her acting career in the BBC soap 'Eldorado' and appeared in 'Dangerfield'. She played Brenda in 'The Office'. Her Disability Foundation campaigns for the rights of disabled people. She is involved in the relaunch of NCH as Action for Children (www.actionforchildren.org.uk).

I once broke my ankle simply from putting on a sock. I was born 10 weeks early with osteogenesis imperfecta – brittle bone disease – and my parents were told I wouldn't live longer than two years and that they would have to carry me around on a pillow. I've had about 70 operations and broken 100 bones. Life has improved since I have been taking this fantastic drug, pamidronate, which increases your bone density.

I attended a day school for disabled students, called Ethel Davis, in Ilford, Essex. I don't know what it's like now, but the teaching was terrible. At 11, I was learning "5 plus 3 equals 8". My mother knew I had a bit of savvy and found out about the top boarding-school for disabled students, Lord Mayor Treloar School and College in Hampshire. It costs a minimum of £45,000 a year but my mother calculated that, assuming I lived to 50, it would be cheaper for the local education authority to pay the fees than for me to live on benefits afterwards. Going to Treloar would enable me to work and pay tax. She pushed and pushed, and eventually she cracked it.

It was the most fantastic experience, the most wonderful school. I went at 12 and stayed until I was 18. I am now a Patron. Treloar had a great attitude. Those who were academically capable were pushed heavily; those not were taught how to cope in life. It has its own little hospital and its own driving instructor with adapted vehicles.

At Treloar, we basically got on very well; there was some emotional or verbal bullying but you get that anywhere. Unfortunately, many of my friends have died; one winter, a student died every week for eight weeks. There were about 135 students on each site; you were at the school until GCSEs at 15, then the college for A-levels, going to Alton Sixth Form College for the actual lessons.

My GCSE class were the first disabled students to take the drama GCSE. We all got Bs, which infuriated Mrs Thomas, my teacher, who believed we should have got As. Once a year we put on a main play: Bugsy Malone, West Side Story – big stuff! – and each boarding house put on its own play. We learnt instruments for our own orchestra.

I got seven or eight GCSEs. During my A-levels, I applied to a number of polytechnics, but they said their buildings were not accessible. Then BBC casting agents contacted Mrs Thomas to say: "We're looking for a young lady to play a wheelchair user in Eldorado." We all flew to Spain for filming. During my A-levels, I spent Monday and Tuesday filming, flew back on Wednesday, exam on Thursday: yes, it was hectic. I got both A-levels, in English and German. Poor grades, mind you, but I got them.

This is a tough business, even more so when you have a disability. I tried for a Blue Peter audition, but you had to do a piece to camera – on a bucking bronco.

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